Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 19 News List

NHL faces a canceled 2005 season

MAKING HISTORY If the National Hockey League's Gary Bettman calls off the season, as expected, it will be the first time that a season is lost due to a labor dispute

AFP , NEW YORK

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman has scheduled a news conference for today at which he is expected to announce the final cancellation of the 2004-2005 season.

That would make the NHL the first league in North American sport history, if not all of sports, to lose an entire season due to a labor dispute.

After failed talks on Sunday in Washington involving a federal mediator, it was all but certain this would mark the first time since the 1919 flu epidemic that the Stanley Cup has not been awarded.

"Unfortunately this is going to be uncharted territory for us. If they cancel the season, we'll be the first league to do that in the history of professional sports," Detroit star Brendan Shanahan said.

"This could go well into a third season. It's possible and I think the players are preparing for that because we just don't know what to expect at this point," he said.

Owners of the 30 NHL clubs began the shutdown in September saying they could not remain in business without a limit on player salaries.

Players have refused to consider a salary cap and about 375 of them have gone to play in Europe as a result. Many others have taken jobs with minor-league US clubs in what has become a lost season.

A 48-game season was salvaged after a 105-day lockout stretched into January of 1995. An NHL plan would have hurried into a 28-game season and into a full 16-team playoff.

The news conference announcement in the wake of months of failed talks made for an unhappy Valentine's Day for NHL fans, with "Black Wednesday" set to ice the season on what would be the 154th day of the lockout.

With the season lost, there would be little point in more talks until the likely start of next season, which could feature replacement players. Or owners could elect to keep the league shut through a second full season.

"Unfortunately for the players and for the fans, if Gary Bettman cancels this season, I fear that this could actually go well into next year [and] possibly into a third season," Shanahan said.

"For a lot of players it could be the end of the line and players are willing to accept that if Gary Bettman makes that call," he said.

If the season is lost, such stars as Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier might conclude their careers without ever again strapping on the skates for an NHL game.

And the Olympics, which used NHL talent in 1998 at Nagano and 2002 at Salt Lake City, might have to settle for second-tier players next year at Turin with teams such as reigning champion Canada playing without their top talents.

Another issue facing the league is lackluster play, with many weaker teams forced into playing a clutch-and-grab style because they lack the scoring skill to compete in a more wide-open game.

"It's tough to explain why the game is where it's at. Some teams have played a more defensive style and they've been successful in doing it. Other teams have copied them," Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit said.

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