With the National Hockey League season likely to collapse this week, the Maple Leafs, their general manager and coaches stood together yesterday -- on the same bench no less -- to fight a common enemy.
Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Tie Domi and Ed Belfour joined GM John Ferguson and a group of former Leafs and NHL greats in assistant Keith Acton's Game Of Our Lives II at Stouffville Arena, raising about $30,000 for local cancer and leukemia charities.
When Acton, a Stouffville resident and cancer survivor, announced he was bringing the stars to town to play the tier II junior A Spirit, about 1,400 tickets sold out in 19 minutes.
"There is a lot of talk these days about hockey being just a business," Acton said. "But something like this puts a human face on things."
Former Leafs captains Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark joined Acton's team and not even former minor-leaguer Ferguson or Belfour, who played forward, looked out of place in a high-tempo game, won 15-6 by the NHLers.
But no one expects the real thing very soon. In fact, few see the negotiators among the players and owners getting back together in time to prevent the season from being lost.
"We're obviously talking days now and not weeks," Ferguson said. "But one thing that hasn't changed is that a deal has to be made that works for both sides. And that is a matter of making sure we get the right one and not worrying about when we get it."
Roberts said it was "very sad" that the season appeared to be over.
"Hopefully it's not," the veteran winger said. "But I'm not at all optimistic there will be a late deal."
Rather than consider Europe, Roberts is increasing his involvement in his Station 7 gym at Union Station.
Eternal optimist Nieuwendyk had been maintaining all along there would be a late agreement.
"I still think a serious push has yet to come," the Leafs centre said, echoing speculation that the league's much-anticipated final offer will not be its best offer and perhaps the players will get creative at the deadline, too.
Nieuwendyk is also not dismissing the idea that a skeleton season of 20-something games could fly.
"We're not at that stage yet, but everyone would be fired up for the playoffs (if they came on the heels of a short schedule)," he said. "You hear about the lockout every day in Toronto, but I think people would come back to hockey. But all those things would sort themselves out. The key right now is to get back talking."
Meanwhile, Steve Yzerman of the Red Wings told the Detroit News in yesterday's editions that it was doubtful he would return, at age 39, if the lockout drags into next season.
"I've pretty much got my mind made up about what I'm going to do, but there's no need to say for sure yet," he said. "If next season started on time and the Red Wings called about playing, it's something I'd definitely consider. But starting in January might be different."