NHL set to miss opening night

Tuesday, October 12th 2004, 8:03 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Tampa Bay Lightning were supposed to raise their Stanley Cup championship banner this week to kick off the new season.

Instead, the arena that rocked during the finals in June will be dark because of a labor dispute that shows no sign of ending soon. That will be the case, too, for Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, Phoenix, Anaheim and San Jose, also slated to host openers Wednesday night.

The NHL has been shut down for nearly a month following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. The league and the players association are so far apart philosophically that they haven't met or even spoken since Sept. 9 _ a week before the decade-old deal ran out.

``I don't think anybody is happy that we're in the situation we're in,'' said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer. ``I think everybody would much rather be playing hockey.''

Training camps didn't open on time and then the entire preseason schedule was wiped out.

Now, real games are about to be officially lost. And with no talks planned, the entire season is in serious jeopardy.

``The players are disappointed but not surprised the 2004-05 season will not start on time,'' NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said Tuesday. ``The league's decision to lock out the players to try to force them to accept a salary cap system had been planned for many years.''

The Lightning were supposed to enjoy one of the biggest nights in the history of the 12-year-old team that unexpectedly won the Stanley Cup last season in a thrilling seven-game series over Calgary.

Before a rematch Wednesday with the Philadelphia Flyers, the team the Lightning vanquished in the Eastern Conference finals, the championship was supposed to celebrated again.

That won't happen now.

``Our fans lived through some great memories with our team last season and we intend on rekindling those memories just as soon as the work stoppage is over,'' Lightning president Ron Campbell said Tuesday.

Instead of being something special Wednesday night, it will just be one of seven games wiped out.

``It is definitely emblematic of some short-term pains for the Lightning and our fans, but we know the work stoppage will bring good times for our organization over the long term,'' Campbell said.

Although games won't officially be canceled by the NHL until the day they are supposed to be played, they really are being called off a month in advance. The league is leaving the cancelation of games up to clubs that have been given permission to release arena dates on a 30-day rolling basis.

``It's not something that comes as a surprise,'' Saskin said. ``We all knew there would not be an opening night on Oct. 13.''

So there is no hope of any games being played in October, and November's schedule is quickly being lost, too. Even the most optimistic observers say that there won't be any NHL hockey before January.

It is then that the league and the players association will face a deadline: make a deal, or try again in the fall to save the 2005-06 season.

``I don't think it's currently our intention to reach out,'' Daly said. ``Until they're talking about partnership, until they're willing to acknowledge our issues and address them in a meaningful way, I'm not sure what point there is in talking.''

The last lockout that interrupted the 1994-95 season, lasted 103 days and was settled in time to have a truncated 48-game schedule. That deal held in place ever since, having been renewed twice.

But the NHL says it can't survive under those terms anymore and is in need of ``cost certainty'' to stay afloat.

The NHLPA agrees that changes are needed, but doesn't subscribe to the theory that a salary cap is the way to fix things. It instead has proposed a luxury cap system, a plan the NHL says won't solve the problems.

``The league's ongoing refusal to explore any compromise solutions makes it clear they have no interest in seeing any NHL games played unless they get a cap,'' Saskin said.

Thus there is a standoff that doesn't seem to offer any sort of middle ground, leaving hockey fans, players, coaches, and support staff in limbo.

So far, 202 players _ over a quarter of those in the NHL _ have signed to play in European leagues while the dispute rages on. Most have conditions in their new contracts to allow them to return to the NHL if the lockout ends during the season.

But this week they will miss their first NHL paychecks.

``Hockey players ... this is what guys do for a living,'' Saskin said. ``It's important for many of them to stay in shape and look for an opportunity to play hockey somewhere.''

Daly doesn't feel that will force the league back to the bargaining table.

``It's not a real alternative to the National Hockey League both in terms of compensation and visibility,'' he said. ``I think everybody would rather be playing in the National Hockey League for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they're making overseas.''

Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock didn't have to leave the country to cure his hockey fix, instead he returned to his Texas roots.

Hitchcock, who led the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup title in 1999, joined the Corpus Christi Rayz of the Central Hockey League to help out with training camp.

``I'm missing the teaching aspect of the game right now,'' he said. ``I think this is a great opportunity to get back into that.''

This week, it's the only one available.