Players ready to dig in heels

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:09 AM ET

One is a 16-year veteran who drank three times from the Stanley Cup and has made millions of dollars over his career. The other, coming off his first full season, has had just a taste of life in the NHL. But they're in the same place when it comes to their stance on the labour war which is about to shut down their livelihoods.

At 11 p.m. today, Winnipegger Mike Keane and J. P. Vigier of Notre Dame de Lourdes will be locked out of their jobs, along with some 600 others riding the gravy train that has been pro hockey the last decade.

The dispute over how to share the pie is expected to last anywhere from four months to two years.

As hard as it is for the average working stiff to comprehend, the players are willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain a system that's seen the average salary rise from $271,000 in 1991 to more than $1.5 million last season.

"A cap is just unacceptable," Keane, a 37-year-old free agent, said yesterday after a game of shinny at the River Heights Arena. "If that's where their starting point is going to be, then we're not going to get very far."

Vigier, who'll begin missing paycheques from the Atlanta Thrashers next month, echoed Keane's sentiments.

"We don't think it's fair," the 28-year-old said. "It's their bottom line, but it's our bumps and bruises and our faces in front of that puck."

At the same time, the owners say they won't accept anything less than a salary cap. And back and forth they go, stuck in a never-ending, neutral zone trap.

Keane has the benefit of hindsight -- he's been through two previous work stoppages. He's also a guy who's benefited as much as anyone from a system that makes millionaires out of third-line checkers.

"If we would have had a cap years ago, I wouldn't have made the money I made," Keane acknowledged. "I can step back, because I'm an older player now. But how can people fault the players when people are basically giving you money?

"I don't see that we're spoiled athletes and we have to have this and this, or we won't play. Teams come up and offer players millions of dollars, right or wrong ... how can we be faulted for being offered money ... and signing contracts?"

It's hard to argue with the players' rationale. I mean, the owner's got themselves into this mess.

And it's not like Keane has lost touch with real people, or doesn't understand a fan's frustration.

"Like everyone else, I have friends and family that work hard and have families to support, and are making their $30,000 or $40,000 and are working nine to five," he said. "But we're the best 620 players in the world. And we should be paid like it. What that area is, isn't for me to decide."

Keane knows this lockout could end his career.

For Vigier, it's more of a speed bump, but a heck of an expensive one.

"It's frustrating. You get excited about going back," Vigier said. "But for the benefit of all the guys ... you're thinking maybe a bit of a loss now for a long-term gain."

You can't help but wonder, though, how much long-term gain there's going to be. Because a fan can only take so much.

"I understand that," Vigier said. "I was a kid one time, too, watching probably 200 hockey games a year. And the other 100 days I was at the rink. But it's more of a business now. It's not just a game anymore."

And that's the biggest difference between the players, the owners and the fans.

They'd better be careful, though. Because once the rest of us see it that way, it's lights out.


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