SUN Hockey Pool

As grim as it gets

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

The NHL labour dispute - and comedy of errors that made up the cancellation soap opera - will live in hockey infamy forever.

That blank space where the 2004-05 Stanley Cup winner should be will stand for all time as a testament to greed, ego and stupidity.

The long-term damage to the fan base hasn't even been calculated yet, but we can safely say these are the darkest days the league has ever seen.

And it's seen its share of blackouts in its colourful 87-year history.

From sad to silly to tragic, here's a look back at some of the great game's growing pains:

WAYNE GRETZKY IS TRADED. More than robbing a city of its greatest treasure, Aug. 9, 1988, put small markets everywhere on the endangered list. It triggered a boom in the United States that the game simply couldn't sustain. Franchises exploded across the Sunbelt, salaries skyrocketed and the NHL eventually collapsed under its own weight. Within six years Winnipeg and Quebec City lost their teams. And fourth-line wingers were earning more than Gretzky did during his last Cup season.

THE DEVILS WIN THE CUP. Head coach Jacques Lemaire realizes the NHL is watered down enough that a team can win by killing the game rather that playing it. So the Devils do. At a time when the NHL needed a boost, after losing the first three months of the season to the 1994 labour dispute, the Devils drag it deeper. The hockey is terrible, the ratings brutal, and all the fans who left during the strike have no reason to hurry back. The trap becomes an NHL institution, and over the next 10 years TV contracts shrivel, attendance plummets and the loss of revenue leave numerous teams on the brink.

"HAVE ANOTHER DONUT YOU FAT PIG." After a 6-1 loss to Boston in the 1988 playoffs, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld bumps referee Don Koharski in an arena hallway and utters one of the most infamous lines in hockey. He's suspended, but the Devils appeal in a New Jersey court and get their coach back for Game 4, resulting in a wildcat strike by that night's officiating crew. The game is delayed until the NHL finds amateur referees at a nearby rink and sends them out in baggy yellow sweatshirts borrowed from arena security. The game deteriorates into a series of line brawls. The NHL, struggling for respect in the U.S., looks like a senior men's league.

THE RICHARD RIOT. Late in the 1955 season Richard is cut by Boston's Hal Laycoe and goes berserk. He attacks Laycoe with his stick, twice, and slugs a linesman. Twice. He is suspended the final three games of the season and all of the playoffs. Montreal goes nuts. A fan attacks Clarence Campbell at the next Canadiens game, another throws a canister of tear gas and everyone pours into the street for a seven-hour riot. Richard goes on local radio to try and calm the masses. Detroit wins the Cup and Richard, who never won an NHL scoring race, loses the Art Ross by a point.

MCSORLEY-BRASHEAR. There have been uglier on-ice incidents in the NHL, but few damaged the league's reputation more. On Feb. 21, 2000, Donald Brashear beats Marty McSorley and dusts his hands for the crowd. After several requests for a rematch are denied, McSorley slashes Brashear across the temple, dropping him in a bloody, convulsing heap.The fallout is enormous: everyone from CNN to Al-Jazeera piles on the NHL. McSorley is suspended for a year, but never returns. He is found guilty of assault and given a conditional discharge.

BERTUZZI-MOORE. After Steve Moore's head shot puts Vancouver captain Markus Naslund out with a concussion, the Canucks swear revenge. On March 8, 2004, they get it. Bertuzzi slugs Moore from behind, knocking him cold before he hits the ice. Moore's neck is broken in the ensuing dog pile. Again, the NHL takes a terrible public relations beating as the highlight is shown more often than the collapsing of the Trade Towers. Bertuzzi is suspended indefinitely and receives a conditional discharge in his criminal trial. Moore sues everyone in sight.

THE CRASHES. From Tim Horton, Pelle Lindberg and Steve Chiasson, who got behind the wheel after drinking, or passengers Keith Magnuson or Dan Snyder, hockey and car crashes have always had a long and deadly relationship. Despite all the warnings about speed and alcohol, it seems five years can't go by without somebody dying on the road.

BILL MASTERTON. On Jan. 13, 1968, Masterton, a defenceman for the expansion Minnesota North Stars, is checked by two Oakland Seals. His helmetless head smacks the ice and he falls into a coma. He dies two days later, becoming the first and only on-ice casualty in the NHL. His death starts the helmet movement, which grows into mandatory equipment. NHL writers create the Bill Masterton Award for sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey.

BRITTANIE CECIL. On March 18, 2002, Brittanie Cecil receives a set of Blue Jackets' tickets as an early 14th birthday present. The surprise ends in tragedy when the eighth-grader is struck in the forehead by a deflected slap shot and dies two days later. She is the only spectator to ever die after being hit by a puck at an NHL game. Today, all NHL arenas and all minor-hockey rinks have protective netting at the ends.


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