- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

TORONTO — Wayne Gretzky, perhaps the greatest player to lace on skates, sat in front of a large gathering of reporters from many of the world’s hockey-playing nations yesterday at the World Cup of Hockey and addressed a question he hoped wouldn’t be asked.

“We still have two days,” the Team Canada general manager said when asked whether he had any hope labor peace could be achieved in the NHL. “I was sort of glad nobody asked about it [before] because that’s not the focus for today, nor should it be.”

But there is no getting around it. In about 24 hours, the owners of the 30 NHL teams will lock out their players, starting the league’s second work stoppage in the past 10 years. The previous one, in 1994, lasted 103 days, but predictions for this one range from weeks to seasons.

The news today is that there is no news. No negotiating sessions have been scheduled, and there are no talks even planned to set up those sessions.

Officially, the lockout begins at 11:59 p.m. tomorrow when the current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association expires. Training camps for the 2004-05 season were scheduled to open later this week but will be postponed when the lockout becomes official. The season, scheduled to start Oct. 13, will be put on hold and possibly wiped off the calendar if there is no agreement.

There was little talk about the labor dispute yesterday as Canada and Team Finland, the finalists for the World Cup of Hockey tonight at Air Canada Centre, went through their practices — perhaps the final practices for hockey at this level for quite some time.

All of this seems somewhat bizarre, considering the bitter exchanges taking place between the union and the league. The World Cup is a joint undertaking of the two groups, and representatives of both sides have been working together for months in Europe and North America to make it a success. So far it has come off quite well despite minuscule TV ratings in the United States.

“It’s definitely been put aside,” Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils veteran who stars in goal for Canada, said of the dispute. “This is something pretty special we’re going to do [tonight], and we don’t want to jeopardize getting ourselves ready or enjoying the moment. This is something we’ll deal with at a later date. All the players in our locker room, we made a pact together not to talk about it or get affected by it. We have one mission to do. It’s winning that game.”

Instead, the big topic of conversation yesterday was Brodeur’s left wrist, which he injured stopping a shot three days ago. The injury forced Brodeur to miss the overtime victory over the Czech Republic on Saturday, when Florida’s Roberto Luongo took over in net. Yesterday Brodeur said he would face the Finns if his condition continued to improve as expected.

Despite the solid play in the World Cup, a pall hung over the activities because of the impending work stoppage. Many acquaintances exchanged firm handshakes and vowed to stay in touch, scenes normally associated with the end of the playoffs.

“The fans have no tolerance for this whatsoever,” said one long-time on-air employee of CFAN, Toronto’s leading sports talk radio station. “From what we’re hearing from listeners, they view it as billionaires fighting each other over the last penny out there.”

“We still have 48 hours,” Gretzky said yesterday morning, a figure that was chopped in half by today and is growing smaller by the minute.

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