Games off in NHL

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

Now it truly is a dark day for hockey.

With the loss of the first regular-season games tonight, the measure of the National Hockey League lockout will be judged in real dollars, declining fan interest and lots of sweat for owners and players.

The NHL was supposed to open on seven fronts, including Tampa Bay, where the division, conference and Stanley Cup champion Lightning scrapped a triple banner raising ceremony and the unveiling of the Cup.

'UNFORTUNATE'

"It's unfortunate," Tampa's Brad Richards said yesterday. "This is when it starts to hit that we should be playing. You don't really miss training camp, but now that the schedule would be starting it's really different."

The first cheques for players would have been Friday, but the usual pay days of the 15th and 30th of each month have been stopped.

In Ottawa, Game 1 of a 1,230-game schedule was supposed to have been between the Senators and Montreal Canadiens, possibly a Dominik Hasek - Jose Theodore goaltending duel. But where Sens' owner Eugene Melnyk staged an Eagles concert to thank subscribers this time last year, the Corel Centre will be turned over this evening to minor hockey.

San Jose and Chicago don't even have ice in either the HP Pavilion or the United Center for games that were on tap for tonight. Assuming all seven venues were sold out, 129,088 spectators would be denied.

At the Air Canada Centre, where the Leafs were to have had their home opener on Saturday, the Raptors are preparing for Friday's pre-season opener.

No optimism for a quick resolution emerged last night from TSN's one-hour grilling of the lead negotiators for each side, league counsel Bill Daly and union senior director Ted Saskin.

"We've done everything in our power to get the players to verify our (financial losses)," Daly said, adding the union leadership was to blame more than the rank and file.

He repeated commissioner Gary Bettman's vow that the 2004-05 schedule would be tanked before the owners give in.

Saskin pushed the theory that the NHL is going to sit on its $300 million US war chest until it can impose its own deal next year, bring in replacement players and try to break the union. While acknowledging fans aren't likely on the side of millionaires now, Saskin predicted a move to replacements would backfire.

"We don't have any negotiations planned (in the near future)," Saskin added. "The last proposal came from us, so I think the ball's in their court."

Kyle Fratini of WagerOnSports.com said yesterday that his online sports betting company is sticking with 1-to-3 odds that there will be an impasse with no hockey this season and 2-to-1 odds that a partial schedule will be salvaged.

Not even Prime Minister Paul Martin escaped lockout talk during an interview on Russian radio prior to the start of a visit with President Vladimir Putin yesterday. Radio host Alexei Venediktov said Russians are concerned for local players affected by the lockout and he wondered if the issue might come up during the leaders' three-hour meeting.

"Disappointed as you may be, that is nothing compared to my disappointment and (that) of Canadians at the situation in the NHL," Martin said. "I would very much hope that the parties would sit down and begin negotiations."


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