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NHL League's future murky as final negotiations fail



Published: Thu, February 17, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



No one knows when hockey will return or how it will be received.

NEW YORK (AP) -- A hockey season on the brink is now a season gone bust.

The NHL canceled what was left of its decimated schedule Wednesday after a round of last-gasp negotiations failed to resolve differences over a salary cap -- the flash-point issue that led to a lockout.

It's the first time a major pro sports league in North America lost an entire season to a labor dispute. The resulting damage could be immeasurable to hockey, which already has limited appeal in the United States.

"This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

"Every day that this thing continues we don't think it's good for the game," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said in Toronto.

Momentum lost

To begin with, all momentum gained in the final days of negotiations has been lost -- late offers that appeared to bring the sides close to a deal are now off the table, and there's no telling when the NHL will get back on the ice.

No Stanley Cup champion will be crowned, the first time that's happened since 1919, when the 2-year-old league called off the finals because of a flu epidemic.

Without an agreement, there can be no June draft. The sport's heralded next big thing, Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby, won't pull on his first NHL sweater anytime soon.

Then there is the parade of aging stars -- Mario Lemieux (39), Mark Messier (44), Steve Yzerman (39) Brett Hull (40), Ron Francis (41), Dave Andreychuk (41) and Chris Chelios (43) -- whose playing days could be ending on someone else's terms.

"This is a tragedy for the players," Bettman said. "Their careers are short and this is money and opportunity they'll never get back."

Lemieux switches sides

Despite being the NHL's best-known star, there was never a chance that Pittsburgh's Lemieux, the first owner-player in modern American pro sports history, would side with the players.

"A few years ago, I thought the owners were making a lot of money and were hiding some under the table, but then I got on this side and saw the losses this league was accumulating," he said Wednesday.

Hockey was already a distant fourth on the popularity scale among the nation's major league sports. The NHL lost the first season of its two-year broadcasting agreement with NBC that was supposed to begin this season, a revenue-sharing deal in which the network is not even paying rights fees.

Taking a year off, or more, will only push the league farther off the radar screen.

"The scary part now for hockey is do the fans come back? We're not baseball, we're not the national pastime," Nashville forward Jim McKenzie said.

Between shifts of a pickup game at the Denver rink where the Avalanche used to practice, fan Don Cameron called the cancellation "a shame."

"When they come back, it's not going to be as easy to pay for a $90 season ticket," he said.

Others hurt

Not to mention how difficult it will be for all the ushers, trainers, officials, Zamboni drivers and businesses near arenas that will continue to be affected.

"We profoundly regret the suffering this has caused our fans, our business partners and the thousands of people who depend on our industry for their livelihoods," Bettman said.

Bettman said the sides would keep working toward an agreement.

"We're planning to have hockey next season," he said.

Goodenow stressed that the players had already given a lot of ground. "Every offer by the players moved in the owners' direction," he said.

"Keep one thing perfectly clear," Goodenow said. "The players never asked for more money -- they just asked for a marketplace."

The league and players' union traded a flurry of proposals and letters Tuesday night, but could never agree on a cap. The players proposed $49 million per team; the owners said $42.5 million. But a series of conditions and fine print in both proposals made the offers further apart than just $6.5 million per team.

"We weren't as close as people were speculating," Bettman said.

Not enough

Before Monday, the idea of a salary cap was a deal-breaker for the players' association but the union gave in and said it would accept one when the NHL dropped its insistence that there be a link between revenues and player costs.

That wasn't enough to end the lockout that started Sept. 16 and ultimately wiped out the entire 1,230-game schedule that was to begin in October and run through the Stanley Cup finals in June.

And now, those concessions are off the table.

"By necessity we have to go back to linkage since no one knows what the damage to the sport will be," Bettman said.




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