SUN Hockey Pool

Who will be back in '05-06?

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

The National Hockey League we once knew, grew up on and followed with fervor, will never again be the same.

When it officially closes its doors tomorrow, barring a miracle, it will become the first professional sporting league to cancel a season without playing a game. And from there, everything changes.

Our teams. Our minds. Our players. Our allegiances. Our conversations.

Our own history. And all that is left is disgust, disdain, disinterest and an uncertainty so deep it is almost unexplainable.

The announcement in New York tomorrow is only about the cancellation of what was never intended to be an NHL season. That was the plan from the beginning. Gary Bettman should come clean and at least say so -- but he won't.

Instead, he will say he is sorry. Instead, he will accuse the other side of being unreasonable. Instead, he will repeat the same lines he has been barking for the past three years.

All that spoken with having no idea of the damage that has been done. No one can know for certain how dark this is for the NHL: We do know that once upon a time there were four major-league team sports in North America.

And now there are three. There may never be four again.

Putting the league out of its misery for this season -- and who knows much how longer -- is little more than a cease-fire in the unfathomable battle between millionaires and billionaires, with hired guns who have had no personal stake in any of the arguments but all kinds of control. All the while holding whatever the few fans left as hostage and numbing the rest into conspicuous submission.

When the NHL re-opens for business -- if it re-opens -- almost everything will have a different look.

The jerseys will have changed. The rules will have changed. Maybe the number of teams will have changed. The teams you know, the players you know, will have changed dramatically.

Tomorrow, when the season is officially cancelled, almost 65% of NHL players will sit by helplessly watching what was left of their contracts expire. That, by itself, is a startling number: That's about 475 players, whose lives were uncertain yesterday and only get more confusing tomorrow.

At least 100 of them -- maybe more -- names you know, names you don't, will never get another deal. Their lockout will be permanent.

The Maple Leafs' depth chart that is found on the wall of director of players personnel Mike Penny's office, almost is moot today.

Gary Roberts may no longer be a Leaf. Same for Tie Domi. Same for Joe Nieuwendyk. Same for Brian Leetch. Same for Alex Mogilny.

"We've known for some time we're going to have to compete differently," said John Ferguson, the Leafs general manager. "How different, we don't know until we know the rules."

And on a scale of other NHL teams, the Leafs may be more complete than most. The hockey landscape will never again be the same.

It can't be. The NHL has closed its doors for now and who knows for how long. Bridled optimism aside, the war to end all hockey wars has no end in sight.


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