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Cold Reality: NHL Cancels The Season

By Thomas Heath and Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A01

NEW YORK, Feb. 16 -- The National Hockey League became the first major sports league in North America to lose an entire season because of a labor disagreement Wednesday, when Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the cancellation of the 2004-05 schedule after the owners and players' union failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement.

The decision was the culmination of a labor dispute that began Sept. 15, when the owners locked the players out of training camps because the union would not agree to the owners' demand for a National Football League-style ceiling on payrolls, commonly referred to as a salary cap.

"I know this will be damaging, but I am supportive of the decision the league reached," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis says. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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The demise of the season creates enormous uncertainties for the NHL, which has strived unsuccessfully for years to achieve a stature equal to that of the other big three sports leagues in the United States. The NHL, which says its teams have lost $1.8 billion over the past decade and that 20 of its 30 clubs lost money last year, is instead left with an unsatisfied core fan base, no national television contract and a future very much in doubt.

No Stanley Cup champion will be crowned this year, the first time that has happened since 1919, when the 2-year-old league called off the finals because of a flu epidemic.

"Every professional sports league owes its existence to its fans," Bettman said. "Everyone in the National Hockey League owes our fans an apology. We are truly sorry."

NHL owners were determined to lower rising player salaries, which averaged $1.8 million last season. After months of rejecting a salary cap, the players' association agreed to one this week, even as it held to its position that the NHL's finances were not as dire as the league states. But despite a last-ditch effort to salvage the season over the last few days, the league and players could not agree on a payroll limit.

"Keep one thing perfectly clear: The players never asked for more money; they only asked for a marketplace," said Bob Goodenow, the executive director of a union representing the league's 700 players, more than 350 of whom are playing in European leagues this winter.

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who says his franchise has lost $100 million since he bought it for $80 million in 1999, acknowledged that fans of the sport have been disheartened by a winter without the NHL. "When the game re-opens, we'll have a lot of work to do," he said. "The game is about more than just a CBA. I know this will be damaging, but I am supportive of the decision the league reached."

Leonsis said he normally would lose about $20 million during a season, but said he will lose half of that this year because the lockout actually costs him less than if he were putting a team on the ice. Leonsis said deposits for season tickets would be returned to fans.

Bowie resident Allen Knotts, 63, a Capitals' season ticket holder since 1983 and membership chairman of the Washington Capitals Fan Club, said many fans anticipated the cancellation. "We're [still] disappointed about not seeing any NHL hockey," Knotts said. "I know some fans who say they won't come back. Some came to games at the end of last year, to say goodbye to everyone. A lot of them have given up on the NHL and the Caps."

Bettman said the league would turn its focus on returning to the ice for the 2005-06 season, adding that while the league would work to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the union, it would leave all options open, presumably including hiring replacement players if a deal is not reached.

"Nobody knows what the damage to the sport will be," Bettman said. "Nobody knows what revenues we can count on. I suspect we are going to have to do lots of things with our business partners, with our fans, with ticket prices. We're going to have to earn back the trust, love and affection of everybody who's associated with the game. We're going to have to look at a completely different economic model, one that's going to have linkage. The best deal that was on the table is now gone."

Goodenow agreed there had been damage to the game. "Fan support is going to be an issue going forward," Goodenow said.

The uncertainty facing the league could lead some NHL players to leave North America permanently and play for professional teams in their homeland. NHL players skating in Europe this season are earning a fraction of their NHL salary, but the top players can earn millions of dollars after taxes and expenses.

In fact, one of the NHL's young stars, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers, will spend the rest of the season in the Russia Super League.

The union has implored its members on its private Web site to not only seek deals in Europe this winter, but urged them to begin seeking employment for next season as well.

Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern, who has been playing for the Kloten Flyers in the Swiss Elite League, has begun exploring his European options. He was due to earn $1.6 million this season in the NHL.

"It does make it easier for players having the option to play in Europe," Halpern, a Potomac native, said in a telephone interview from Switzerland recently. "If a restrictive system is put into place [in the NHL], the best European players will want to stay here, where they can earn good money. And that's going to be a shame, because the NHL has always been the place where the best players in the world come to play. But that may not be the case anymore."

El-Bashir reported from Washington.

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