- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

TORONTO — The man wearing the Team Canada sweater outside Air Canada Centre yesterday didn’t hesitate for a second when asked how long he thought the expected NHL lockout would last.

“I think we’ll be here for the next World Cup [2008] before the NHL gets back,” he said. “My wife says this will be the best thing that’s happened to our marriage in years.”

Indeed, more than anything else, there appears to be an air of resignation in this city, where hockey, and especially the NHL, is king. The owners of the world’s premier hockey league plan to lock out their players sometime Wednesday if no agreement is reached on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The chances of that happening are virtually nil. The NHL’s ruling board of governors is excepted to announce the immediate imposition of a lockout at its Wednesday meeting in New York.

There doesn’t appear to be any sympathy for either side. The owners are demanding a salary cap of some kind to protect themselves from impulsive and sometimes foolish spending sprees. Meanwhile, the players refuse to discuss the cap issue and are widely viewed as overpaid.

One reason there is no widespread mourning over the probable suspension of league activity is that fans have been reading about the possibility for years. Most of the reporting has been pessimistic.

“I’ve been writing at least one CBA story a week since 1998,” one Canadian sportswriter said yesterday. “My boss wanted something, whether there was anything new or not. Well, there hasn’t been anything new that I know of for years.”

None of that prevented 19,273 fans from paying their way into Air Canada Centre last night to see the Canadian national team face the Czech Republic. It might have been the last edition, at least for the foreseeable future, of Hockey Night in Canada, an institution in this country for more than a half-century.

“See the top of my head,” said one bald man. “I bought some new formula stuff, and I’ll have a mullet, a long mullet, before they agree to anything.

“But I’ll tell you where they should start — fire the two guys who can’t agree on anything. We’ve been hearing for years that they can’t agree on what the day of the week it is, so maybe it’s past time to give other guys the chance to work a deal. I mean, what have we got to lose?”

It took union president Bob Goodenow and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman 3 months to reach an agreement on a CBA in 1995. This time even the most optimistic observers believe there will be no hockey until January at the earliest.

“And at that they’re pushing the envelope,” said a Canadian Broadcasting Co. official last night. “You have to play at least half a season to have any credibility. If you come down to Jan.10 and there is nothing working, you might as well cancel the season. But if you do that, the two sides just walk away and not call each other until next October, and then we’re right back where we started.”

“I don’t feel sorry for any of them,” said a woman with a son and daughter in tow while her husband was buying miniature Canadian flags. “None of them will starve, but I feel sorry for the people who work at places like [Air Canada Centre]. Who puts food on their tables? You want to settle this thing in hurry? Have the government step in, impose mandatory arbitration.”

The problem there is that it might take a year or two to pick a panel to hear the case.

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