Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 19 News List

NHL appears to be headed for another season-start lockout


Moments before the NHL draft on Saturday, with league and team executives quietly assembled before more than 15,000 fans, a lone voice rang out from the grandstand across the RBC Center.

"Start negotiations," the man shouted. "We want a season. No lockout."

His plea drew a few smiles but no immediate rush toward collective bargaining. His voice emphasized the downbeat pall over the draft, which concluded on Sunday with the final six of nine rounds. There was also one modestly significant trade.

With the collective bargaining agreement between team owners and players expiring on Sept. 15, the NHL appears headed for another lockout. The first one delayed the 1994-95 season for 15 weeks and shortened it to 48 games.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said again on Friday that he wanted the 30 franchises to receive a larger share of about US$2 billion in yearly revenue while reducing the players' share from what he said was about 75 percent.

"We can't go on the way we are," said Bettman, who said a majority of teams were losing money. "We need a fundamental, systemic change, and the union won't talk about it. We've lost too much money for too long. We've got to make the right deal. Otherwise, we're in big trouble."

The union has said repeatedly that it is prepared to make concessions in the current arrangement but that it wants a market-based system that does not force artificial restraints on wages -- which, the players say, amounts to a salary cap.

Uncertainty contributed to the lack of trade activity during the draft, an event that has often involved considerable wheeling and dealing. In Sunday's biggest move, Ottawa traded goalie Patrick Lalime to St. Louis for a fourth-round draft choice in 2005.

The trade further fuels speculation that the Senators, who hired Brian Murray earlier this month to replace Jacques Martin as coach, will replace Lalime with Dominik Hasek. A groin injury limited Hasek to just 14 games with Detroit last season; he has expressed interest in playing for Ottawa.

Hasek and other unrestricted free agents become available, as usual, on July 1. The crop this summer could be larger than usual if some teams decide to shed veterans by not making qualifying offers.

Among those who could become free agents are Brendan Shanahan, Ed Belfour, John Madden, Kris Draper, Mark Recchi, Paul Kariya, Craig Conroy, Aleksei Kovalev, Mathieu Schneider, Brett Hull, Chris Osgood and Matthew Barnaby.

Also on the list are the captains Steve Yzerman of Detroit and Mark Messier of the Rangers. But Yzerman is expected to re-sign with the Red Wings and Messier may retire.

Another player available is Eric Lindros, whose season with the Rangers was curtailed by injury again.

Uncertainty over the labor agreement could subdue the bidding; the average salary for an NHL player rose only slightly last season, to about US$1.8 million. Blues General Manager Larry Pleau said: "Last year, we had a little bit of a rollback in salary. This year, we'll continue."

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