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December 17, 2004 - Flyers' optimism has melted away

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Flyers' optimism has melted away
After last year's playoff run, they had high hopes for this season.


Of the Morning Call

When Keith Primeau scored with under two minutes to go to tie Game 6 of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the Philadelphia Flyers believed they could win the Stanley Cup. It was so close — they were only an overtime goal and a Game 7 win away from playing for the trophy that hadn't been in Philadelphia in 29 years.

They got the goal, but they didn't get the win, and the Tampa Bay Lightning — the Tampa Bay Lightning! — went on to hoist the Stanley Cup.

While the Game 7 loss hurt, there was a sense inside the Flyers' locker room that day that their day would come. To a man, they couldn't wait for next year.

Well, next year has arrived, but the season has yet to begin, and the hope they held onto in that locker room last May is being swallowed up by a labor dispute.

''Any time you have some form of success, you want to immediately start playing again,'' Primeau said Wednesday. ''For us, we wanted to build on what we accomplished last year. The lockout didn't allow us to do that.''

Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock agrees.

''There was a sense of urgency. Everybody wanted to get going again,'' said Hitchock, who's keeping himself busy these days by coaching clinics in and around Philadelphia. ''There was a feeling that all the good things that happened had helped us build strong momentum for another really good season. But I think all of that has gone by now.''

Today is Day 93 of a lockout that might well cost the NHL its entire season. The owners, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, are sticking to their original demand for a salary cap, while the players feel their latest proposal — a 24-percent rollback of salaries and a luxury tax — is more than fair.

''I know there's a sense that the players are greedy — that we don't understand the economics of the game, but we do understand a need to be fiscally responsible,'' Primeau said. ''We realize financially we don't generate as much revenue as the other major sports, but in our last proposal we tried to make those concessions.

''By it being rejected, now we understand, one, their desire to break up the union, and, two, that they're trying to strong-arm us into their proposed cap. That's where, for me, it becomes scary, because I know the resolve of the players.''

Primeau is trying to remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached, which is why he's pushing his teammates to stay in shape. A few, including himself, remain in Philadelphia, where they skate a few times a week. Six others were playing in various European leagues as of Thursday.

It's imperative that an agreement be reached, said Primeau, because the damages from entire season lost will be irreparable.

''Somebody asked me today, 'Who are the fans mad at — the players or the owners?''' he said. ''At first it was the players... but now they're mad at the whole situation. People won't tolerate . That's what scares me the most.''

And to think, just six months ago there was so much hope.