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NHL lockout could cost some players their careers

Could the current NHL lockout mean the end for this crop of players?

Could the current NHL lockout mean the end for this crop of players?

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:44 PM ET

It's a chilling statistic, one that might leave NHL players whistling past the graveyard as the lockout drags on.

The last time the league missed an entire season, 241 players who'd suited up for at least one game in the big league never got another chance.

From Johnathan Aitken to Tomas Zizka, the names on the markers in this cemetery are as varied as the playing styles they represented.

Hall-of-Famer Mark Messier, minor-league thug Mel Angelstad, respected vets Shayne Corson and Mike Keane and whatever-happened-to disappearing acts like Espen Knutson and Alexander Korolyuk all quietly said goodbye to the NHL, thanks to the 2004-05 labour dispute.

Granted, some, like Angelstad, weren't going to be back in the bigs for another nanosecond, anyway.

But others were forced into retirement a little earlier than they'd planned.

"I knew if there was a lockout and I didn't play the whole year, I couldn't play again," former defenceman James Patrick told QMI Agency. "It's not hard to figure out a 40-year-old who hasn't played for a year wouldn't get an opportunity."

Patrick, a smooth-skating defenceman from Winnipeg, was taking things year-by-year with the Buffalo Sabres at that point. After 21 seasons, he knew the end was near.

He still shakes his head, though, at how it ended.

"I don't think of it as having ended my career," he said. "I look back on it as a really disappointing experience ... when all is said and done, I firmly believe they could have got that deal early in the '04-'05 season. With what we know now, that season didn't have to be lost."

Which brings us to the current lockout.

Once again, there are future Hall of Famers whose careers could be on the line. Teemu Selanne, Daniel Alfredsson and Jaromir Jagr top the list, along with dozens of foot soldiers, none of whom want to be part of that next group of statistics.

"It's a huge possibility," Blue Jackets defenceman Adrian Aucoin, 39, told the Columbus Dispatch. "I'm not naive. I think we all saw what happened last time, and there's really no reason to think it would be different."

Veteran Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, a member of the NHLPA negotiating committee, insists the body count is somewhat overblown.

"Actually, we took a look at that," Hainsey said, "and found that of the number of players who played more than 40 games before the last lockout, the return rate ... was actually about the same as it historically had been."

Hainsey says you have to keep in mind two off-seasons had passed by the time the 2005-06 campaign rolled around.

So, in effect, the turnover rate might not have changed, it just felt that way based on all the new faces in the league.

Most agree the at-risk categories include those in the golden years and maybe the borderline up-and-comers, who could lose a season of development and get passed on the organizational depth chart by someone in the minors.

Those who straddle both categories -- aging vets and lower-end talent -- are particularly vulnerable.

Boston fourth-liner Shawn Thornton, who doesn't back down from a scrap, might not have a choice in this one.

"If this goes on for a year or two then I'm probably done and I have to go back to working for a living," Thornton said a few weeks back. "That's fine. I've done it before. I worked in a steel factory when I was younger.

"But on the other side, I'd like play out the last two years of my contract and be a little bit ahead after fighting 400 times over the last 15 years."

Thornton has only been an NHL regular the last five years. The next two, at $1.1 million each, were supposed to create his nest egg.

Others will see their playing days cut short before they ever see a seven-figure salary.

Pegging the exact number may be an inexact science, but those who lived through it the last time say it's significant.

"There's probably a group of about 10% that lost a year and didn't get back to the league," Patrick, who's remained with the Sabres as an assistant coach, said. "If it goes that long, that turnover would be there again. There's always going to be those guys whose contracts expire."

HAINSEY STICKS TO HARD-LINE

Some players have more to lose from a canceled NHL season than others.

One of those is in the inner circle of the NHLPA's bargaining team, putting to the test his willpower to stay the course.

Veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets has been front-and-centre at the player-owner negotiations as a member of the union's bargaining committee.

If there were a checklist of aggravating factors for a lost season, Hainsey's would be full of pencil marks.

Approaching the end of a five-year contract that will pay him $3 million this season, Hainsey is staring at a golden opportunity to prove he's worth another big-money deal, thanks to the wrist surgery that has Jets star blueliner Zach Bogosian on the sidelines.

"I'm 31 and in the final year of my contract," Hainsey said. "And on top of that, one of our top-four defencemen is out until February with an injury. So there is an awful lot of ice time and opportunity for me, personally."

Conversely, Hainsey is coming off a season that saw him put up career lows in goals (zero) and points (10), not exactly a springboard to his next contract.

Yet, there's Hainsey standing beside NHLPA boss Don Fehr, refusing to budge at the NHL's hardline approach to negotiations.

"No one has a better reason to get this season started, asap, than me," Hainsey said. "So the fact that I would never recommend the current offer from the league speaks volumes."

SELANNE COULD BE LOCKOUT VICTIM 

Nobody will look back on the NHL's lockout era with more mixed emotions than Teemu Selanne.

A future Hall of Famer who's also one of the most popular people in hockey -- with fans and fellow players alike -- Selanne could see his marvelous career end with a whimper.

That would be in stark contrast to the bang created by the lockout of 2004-05, a break that not only salvaged but rejuvenated the career of the Finnish Flash.

Selanne has often credited that layoff and the knee surgeries he underwent during it with a resurgence that saw him add 211 goals to his sparkling resume and last season become the oldest player to ever play all 82 games.

Last July, Selanne signed to play another season in Anaheim, but at 42 years young he'd be hard-pressed to withstand a year off, even with his scary combination of natural athleticism and work ethic.

"I'm more sorry about ... the younger players," Selanne said in a recent interview. "I'm 42, I don't have to play one more game. It would be sad to go out like this, but I got more than I really dreamed about."

If anybody deserves a grand sendoff, it's the Finnish Flash.

Instead, he could fall victim to the grand standoff.

The lasting image of players like Selanne should be a series of final laps and waves goodbye to crowds across the continent.

If last year turns out to be his swan song, it's just another black mark on a league seemingly intent on self-mutilation.

THE LOCKOUT BLUES

Notable players finished after '04-'05 lockout:

  • Mark Messier
  • Al MacInnis
  • Adam Oates
  • Scott Stevens
  • Steve Thomas
  • Vincent Damphousse
  • Cliff Ronning
  • Shayne Corson
  • Igor Larionov
  • Mike Keane
  • James Patrick
  • Donald Audette
  • Ron Francis

THIRD TIME UNLUCKY

14 are playing through their third lockout:

  • Jason Arnott
  • Adrian Aucoin
  • Martin Brodeur
  • Sergei Gonchar
  • Roman Hamrlik
  • Jaromir Jagr
  • Nikolai Khabibulin
  • Jamie Langenbrunner
  • Sean O'Donnell
  • Chris Pronger (injured)
  • Brian Rolston
  • Teemu Selanne
  • Ryan Smyth
  • Ray Whitney

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @friesensunmedia


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