SUN Hockey Pool

Cap talk startles 'Peg pros

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 7:58 AM ET

You'd think James Patrick would have seen it all in 20 seasons as an NHLer.

The Winnipeg-born defenceman has skated through the 1994 lockout, the loss of his hometown team to Arizona and the expansion of the NHL to places like Nashville and Carolina.

So there aren't a lot of things that would surprise a wizened, 41-year-old like him.

This one did, though.

After swearing up and down on a stack of Bibles for years that it would never, ever accept a salary cap, the NHL players union has pulled a spinnerama that would make Serge Savard proud, offering a cap of $52 million to the owners this week.

And judging by the reaction from the rank and file, this wasn't exactly part of the game plan.

"Shocked and surprised," is how Patrick described his reaction from his home in Buffalo yesterday. "The message we're getting on the website was no cap, no cap -- and then a cap was proposed. No one saw this coming."

Patrick is not an uninformed sideline observer, either.

A former assistant player rep, he still attends union meetings with teammate Jay McKee, the player rep for the Sabres. So while he may be on the verge of retirement, he's not out of touch.

And from what he hears, more than a few players are standing around with their gloves off, wondering what happened to the fight.

"I know there's some extreme bitterness throughout the league amongst players for the move the negotiating committee took," Patrick said. "At the same time, there are so many guys who just said they want to play hockey, and if this is what it takes, they're willing to do that."

We get a similar take from Neepawa's 29-year-old Shane Hnidy, a defenceman with the Nashville Predators.

"I was in shock," Hnidy said from Florida, where visa problems have held up his attempts to play for the Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League. "A lot of guys were really taken aback. I guess it's a way to get us to play. When you're fighting something so strong as no cap for so long ... it's difficult to swallow right now. It's going to take a while to sink in."

The union has until 10 a.m. today to not only let it sink in, but to accept or reject the NHL's counter-offer of a $42.5-million limit.

After that, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is poised to cancel the season.

"We've had a bunch of 11th hours, but obviously we're there now," Patrick said.

There's a little extra at stake for Patrick. If there's no season, he'll call it a career.

He's told his younger teammates this is their fight, not his, but that he'll support them all the way.

Now that both sides have dropped their major demands, he's actually optimistic he'll be back on the ice.

"Where we are right now, I'd be shocked if they couldn't bridge that gap," Patrick said. "It's easier said than done, but it would be a disaster if there's no season now, if they are this close. They're speaking the same language. It's certainly achievable."

Like most of us, though, Patrick wonders how legitimate a short season would be.

"It is insulting, somewhat, to the fans and the integrity of the game and the Stanley Cup to have a 24, 26 or 28-game season and playoffs," he said. "But if that's what it takes to get six more years of labour peace, then so be it."

You can almost hear the player in Patrick get excited as he ponders the prospect of one more run at a Cup he's never won.

"If there was a 24-game season, it would literally be like the playoffs," he said. "And it could make for great drama, great TV and great hockey.

"It would be a sprint, basically, from March 1 until the Stanley Cup is over."

A sprint this 41-year-old would love to run.


Videos

Photos