The deep freeze

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:48 PM ET

After years of dire warnings about killing hockey's golden goose, hunting season has come with a vengeance. The goose, the gander and the golden egg are splattered across the National Hockey League's field map, as the boundless optimism for growth in the 1990s imploded this year.

On New Year's Eve 1999, the Toronto Sun asked a wide range of people with NHL connections what the new century would bring for the game.

European expansion, the decline of fighting and goonery, injury prevention, and the evolution of new tactics were in the forecast, Armageddon wasn't.

But five years later, a labour impasse has darkened 30 rinks indefinitely -- the culmination of months of acrimony between owners and players.

The savagery of Todd Bertuzzi's attack on Steve Moore and its sinister plot is just one hockey case on the court docket in the New Year. The game also has put itself on trial, with cries louder than ever to ban the trap and set the shackled scorers free.

The only move to Europe has turned out to be the close to 300 locked-out players who have bolted overseas to ride out the storm on club teams from Minsk to Milan. Back home, the season is on the verge of cancellation. Expansion and television monies have dried up as owners and players both stab their forks at a shrinking financial pie, symptomatic of a game that might have grown too big, too fast.

How did things get in such a mess?

"In a word, mistrust," broadcaster Dennis Beyak said. "When the collective bargaining agreement was extended (in 1997, taking it to 2004), it created the feeling that everything was okay. But in effect, that meant there was no attempt at a player-owner partnership until around 2002. Now that it's important to get together, each side can't stand the other."

Right up until the expiration of the CBA on Sept. 15, there was sniping by both sides. For example, the league stopped publishing shot blocks and hits, which were vital to lesser known players seeking new contract ammunition, while the union filed a grievance almost every time the league tried a rules experiment.

Both sides have come up with sound theories on improving the product, such as the recent Brendan Shanahan summit, but red tape has traditionally hindered such attempts.

"It's time to start thinking about the fans and the popularity of the game," Philadelphia Flyers' Jeremy Roenick said in September when asked where the game is heading. "We all sit here and complain that nobody likes it, nobody is watching. Well, if we are worried about that, we have to find something that is going to attract them to TV and bring them in (to the rink)."

An exciting Cup final was a start. After a season of sluggish overall play and no whiff of a 50-goal scorer, the creative Tampa Bay Lightning forechecked aggressively, the Calgary Flames matched their enthusiasm, and the two teams staged a memorable seven-game final.

It was an overdue, feel-good story that expansion to a non-traditional hockey market could succeed and that Canadian franchises such as Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa were on solid ground again.

But the sight of greybeard Dave Andreychuk disappearing into the Lightning's player tunnel with the Cup was one of the few feel-good stories in a season dominated by names such as Bertuzzi, Moore, Dany Heatley, Dan Snyder, Mike Danton and David Frost. If the public had trouble digesting the inner workings of a salary cap, luxury taxes and the Levitt Report, they got numbing lectures in legalese from high-profile criminal cases on both sides of the border.

Within a month of each other last spring, Bertuzzi was suspended indefinitely for what could be a career-ending broken neck to Moore and Danton was arrested in a bizarre murder-for-hire plot linked to Frost, his Svengali-type agent. The latter was banned from all arenas in three junior leagues for a time, but has yet to have his NHLPA agent's certification revoked.

In the new year, Heatley will find out if he'll go on trial for vehicular homicide, stemming from the Sept. 29, 2003, crash that took the life of his passenger, Atlanta Thrashers teammate Snyder. The case involving ex-Leaf captain Rob Ramage, charged with impaired and dangerous driving causing death in the December 2003 crash that killed fellow NHL alumnist Keith Magnuson north of Toronto, is also expected to move forward in the coming months.

Danton already has been sentenced to 7 1/2 years, but could be paroled, and the premeditated nature of the Bertuzzi-Moore incident will have many ramifications. The uproar from Marty McSorley's hit on Donald Brashear from 2000 had finally abated when Bertuzzi put his much publicized bounty on Moore's head after the latter had roughed up Canucks' star Markus Naslund.

"I think a lot of what led to Bertuzzi-Moore is that the pressure to win is so much more than it used to be," Beyak said. "It's pressure to win, pressure to retaliate, pressure to stick up for a teammate.

"It seems that's expected in society and I scratch my head and wonder about what's happened in hockey, what's happened in basketball this year and the effect that salaries and ticket prices has had. I think it all goes hand and hand."

If so, that's a big mood swing for a sport that once produced the most down-to-earth athletes in the pro ranks, young men who didn't hide behind their agents or duck their media obligations and prided themselves on playing the world's fastest team sport. But now there are fourth-line players and fringe defencemen feeling self-important, making close to the league average of $1.8 million US and they're part of a militant union anxious to protect the status quo.

On the other side, moderate owners and general managers, who helped save the 1994-95 season from a full lockout, have either been silenced or replaced by even richer men for whom hockey is a secondary business.

Many have kept their true profits a secret, while sitting on a $300-million US war chest, counting on Bettman's vow to deliver a cap and nothing less.

Both sides are ready to abandon this season, a move that would likely take some or all of 2005-06 with it. A number of stars already in their twilight, in poor health or just plain indifferent about playing in today's watered down NHL could be gone by the time the games resume, among them Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Roenick, Luc Robitaille, Trevor Linden and Scott Stevens.

Coaches such as Toronto's Pat Quinn might not be retained.

Keeping union solidarity among 750 players is already a challenge, but the acid test would come if the league attempts to use replacement players next autumn. The league's lawyers are already familiarizing themselves with the labour laws in the U.S. and in each Canadian province should a bargaining impasse be declared, freeing Bettman to re-open the rinks to any hockey-starved NHLer willing to cross the line.

Assuming that development means there's no draft in June, Sidney Crosby's handlers at International Management Group are doing their homework to clear the way for the junior phenom to declare free agency. But that sets up a bidding war where a few well-heeled owners could fall right back into over-paying for talent.

But if a second season begins without the NHL, the minor pro clubs would have a bigger talent pool to work with, while rebel leagues such as the World Hockey Association are expected to try a re-launch. Junior hockey's modest growth spurt in light of the lockout is sure to flourish at this year's world championship in North Dakota and continue into 2005.

"Interest in junior hockey teams has grown immensely, going back before the lockout," said Beyak, a former executive in the Western Hockey League. "They're setting attendance records all over the country. In this area, Brampton and Mississauga have opened new buildings since 1998 and London has been a phenomenal story with its winning streak."

In Toronto, fans will grumble about the lost season, but still support the Leafs with their hearts and wallets when the locks come off the gate.

When you've waited 37 years for a Cup, another spring won't make much difference.

THE YEAR IN ... NHL

DANTON GOES TO JAIL

St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton, a client of controversial agent David Frost was imprisoned for his role in a murder for hire plot to kill Frost.

GAME ON ICE

The collective bargaining agreement expired on Sept. 15 and the owners and players remain deadlocked on the issue of a salary cap.

THE BERTUZZI INCIDENT

Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi exacted revenge on Steve Moore March 8, but at a terrible cost to the Colorado forward and the image of the game. Bertuzzi mugged Moore in retribution for a hit on Canucks' Markus Naslund and is suspended indefinitely. He also is facing criminal charges.

ORANGE CRUSHED

The Maple Leafs set a club record with 103 points during the regular season but the traditional playoff win over the Ottawa Senators gave way to a series loss to the Flyers. Brian Leetch joined the team, while Robert Reichel, Ron Francis and Mikael Renberg moved on.

WORLD DOMINATION

Before the lockout darkened the arenas, Canada followed its world championship and 2002 Olympic gold medals by defeating Finland in the final of the World Cup in Toronto. Mario Lemieux, likely making his final international appearance, was one of the stars for the Canadian side.

LIGHTNING STRIKES!

The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames staged an entertaining seven-game series in the Stanley Cup final. Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff led the Flames, but it wasn't enough to beat the Lightning's Martin St. Louis, Vince Lecavalier, Dave Andreychuk and Brad Richards.


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