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Published: Thursday, 2/17/2005

NHL iced: Season officially off due to labor dispute

BY MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Joe Louis Arena, with banners signifying past glory, stands empty on the day the hockey season was officially canceled. Joe Louis Arena, with banners signifying past glory, stands empty on the day the hockey season was officially canceled.
Enlarge

After days on life support, the NHL officially pronounced its 2004-2005 season dead yesterday.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman ended all remaining chance of a compromise when he declared that the owners and the players could not reach an agreement. With the announcement, the NHL becomes the first major pro sports league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

This will be just the second time the Stanley Cup isn't awarded since 1893. The last was 1919, when a flu epidemic forced the finals to be called off. There was a lockout in 1994-95 that ended in time for teams to play 48 games, still more than half the regular season.

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

Although he said the sides would continue working to get an agreement, it was unclear when that could happen. Many suspect the same impasse could jeopardize the 2005-06 season.

In Toledo, the reaction was mixed. Some were bummed, like 10-year-old Daniel St. John of Point Place. His favorite player, Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings, won't play this year - and might retire before the NHL resumes.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said canceling the season is something everyone involved wishes could have been avoided. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said canceling the season is something everyone involved wishes could have been avoided.
PAUL CHIASSON / AP Enlarge

Just before his hockey practice at the Tam O' Shanter rinks in Sylvania, he was asked last night what he was doing without the NHL. He had a quick answer.

"Nothing. Being bored and watching football and stuff," Daniel said. "It's still not as good as hockey."

For Storm fans, there's a slight silver lining: The cancellation of the NHL season will give the team a chance to continue its hot streak.

"If the NHL would have settled today, we would have looked at losing two or three players," said Mike Miller, Storm general manager.

A startup of the NHL would have meant the players in the higher level American Hockey League would have gone back to the NHL, creating roster spots that would have been patched mainly with ECHL players.

Now, the Storm will be able to keep its best players during the stretch run.

"We don't have to start recruiting [replacement players] in February," said Miller, who expressed disappointment that some players won't get their shot at the AHL this year.

After about five months of mild talks, the two sides exchanged a flurry of proposals in the last few days, prompting hope that a deal could be reached. The league had offered to no longer demand that player salaries be linked to a fixed percentage of league revenues. On their side, the players agreed to consider a salary cap.

That still wasn't enough to end the lockout that started Sept. 16.

The players proposed a cap of $49 million per team; the owners said $42.5 million. But a series of conditions and fine print in both proposals made the offers farther apart than just $6.5 million per team.

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

A few hours later, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow stressed that the players had given a lot of ground. "Every offer by the players moved in the owners' direction," Goodenow said at a press conference in Toronto, where the union is based.

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

Despite the lockout, youth hockey has been booming in the Toledo area. At Tam O'Shanter, youth leagues have continued to grow. Rink manager Mike Greeder, a former minor league player, said participation has doubled in recent years, with more than 600 boys and girls playing youth hockey.

Talk of the NHL - or the lack of an NHL season - has been almost nonexistent, he said. In fact, he said more people are coming to games at the facility's two rinks, both for high school and youth games.

"I don't think that [a] lack of the NHL playing has hurt youth hockey at all," Greeder said.

But some of the kids, like Daniel St. John, are still upset. Their coach, Bob Felser, has noticed.

"No one will be going down the ice saying 'I'm Vincent Lecavalier,'‚óŹreferring to the Tampa Bay Lightning star.

"All their heroes, they're not there," Felser said. "Their idols are gone for the year."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Mike Wilkinson at:

mwilkinson@theblade.com or

419-724-6104.



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