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December 21, 2004 - Year was marred by lockout, assault on ice and murder-for-hire plot

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Lightning one of few bright spots in ’04
Year was marred by lockout, assault on ice and murder-for-hire plot
COMMENTARY
By Scott Erskine
SportsTicker
Updated: 9:43 p.m. ET Dec. 21, 2004

What should have been the celebration of hockey finally arriving in the Sunshine State instead evolved into one of the darkest periods in NHL history.

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While the Tampa Bay Lightning became the first team from Florida to be crowned Stanley Cup champions, 2004 was marred by a lengthy lockout, an ugly assault on the ice and a bizarre murder-for-hire plot.

Just over three months after the Lightning disposed of the Calgary Flames to capture hockey’s holy grail, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the inevitable on September 15 — the NHL would impose a lockout due to the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement.

It was the second work stoppage during the tenure of Bettman, who became the league’s first commissioner in February 1993.  A 103-day lockout occurred prior to the start of the 1994-95 season, reducing the campaign to 48 games.

With Bettman claiming financial losses totaling over $200 million in each of the previous two seasons, the owners rallied around the commissioner’s cry for a salary cap to be imposed. But the Players Association wanted no part of it, and the two sides waited three months for one another to blink before the union drew up a proposal consisting of a salary rollback and luxury tax.

After four days of reviewing the offer, the league rejected it and presented one of its own.  But the union needed just 2 1/2 hours to dismiss the counteroffer, as Bettman and the owners attempted to mask a salary cap with the term “payroll range system.”

The groups parted ways following the brief mid-December encounter and had not scheduled any further sessions.

Already suffering from poor television ratings, the NHL was forced to cancel nearly half its schedule as well as the All-Star Game in Atlanta — a cash cow for the league. And unless Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow reach an agreement soon, the entire season will be wiped out for the first time since the league was established in 1917.

Without their own league to participate in, NHL players have invaded Europe, where nearly 300 have found jobs at the expense of natives of their countries.  A select few have found work in North America’s minor leagues, including New Jersey Devils center Scott Gomez and Curtis Brown of the Chicago Blackhawks, who both inked deals in the ECHL.

But three-time Norris Trophy winner Chris Chelios has set his sights on another sport — bobsledding.  Chelios has been practicing with the United States Olympic team with hopes of representing Greece in the 2006 Winter Games in Torin, Italy.

Star power forward Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks gave the NHL another black eye and Colorado Avalanche center Steve Moore a broken neck with his senseless attack in March.

Attempting to exact revenge for a questionable hit by Moore on Canucks captain Markus Naslund in an earlier encounter between the teams, Bertuzzi sucker-punched the Avalanche rookie from behind and drove him headfirst into the ice.

Moore suffered a concussion and broken vertebra in the incident, which made national headlines the next morning.  Bettman acted quickly, suspending Bertuzzi for Vancouver’s final 20 games of the regular season and the entire postseason, which resulted in an additional seven contests.

Bertuzzi, who must apply for reinstatement whenever the NHL resumes play, also faces criminal charges.  The Vancouver police charged the two-time All-Star with assault causing bodily harm, with the case set to begin in mid-January and Bertuzzi facing up to 18 months in prison.

A first-round playoff exit was the least of Mike Danton’s problems.  The St. Louis Blues center was arrested following his team’s postseason ouster against the San Jose Sharks for conspiring to allegedly have his agent David Frost killed.

Danton, who had traveled a troubled road to the NHL, offered a hitman $10,000 to murder Frost after the two argued over the alcohol abuse and promiscuity of the “player formerly known as Mike Jefferson.”  After initially pleading not guilty, Danton reversed field before his trial date and currently is serving a 7 1/2-year sentence.

While the identity of Danton’s target has not been made public officially, most believe it was Frost, who has been influential in the 24-year-old’s estrangement from his family and misguided professional career.  Frost continues to deny the allegation and remains a supporter of Danton.

Several men in power also found themselves in trouble as New York Islanders co-owner Sanjay Kumar was indicted for security fraud, obstruction of justice and several other charges while chief executive of Computer Associates International, Inc. — a position he stepped down from in April.

Former Buffalo Sabres owner John Rigas, who founded the ill-fated Adelphia Communications Corporation, was convicted for multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy.  The 79-year-old faces a 30-year prison term.

Hall of Fame referee Andy Van Hellemond resigned as the NHL’s director of officiating in July after allegations he asked current officials for cash loans.  Montreal Canadiens legendary defenseman Serge Savard was arrested in September on suspicion of drunk driving after a minor traffic accident.

The labor and legal problems took away from a fabulous postseason.  The Nashville Predators made the first playoff appearance of their six-year existence, the Canadiens overcame a three-games-to-one deficit against the Boston Bruins and Keith Primeau singlehandedly led the Philadelphia Flyers within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals with a Herculean performance.

Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff helped the Flames to improbable triumphs over the Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and Sharks.  But he could not lead Calgary past Tampa Bay, which delivered 40-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk the first championship of his 22-year career.

The Lightning also gave owner Bill Davidson one of three championship trophies he collected in 10 months as the Detroit Shock captured the WNBA title in 2003 and the Detroit Pistons won the NBA crown eight days after Tampa Bay’s triumph.

The Lightning were well-represented at the NHL Awards show as regular-season scoring leader Martin St. Louis won the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player; Brad Richards, who also received the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, captured the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play; and John Tortorella was given the Jack Adams Award as top coach.

New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur won his second consecutive Vezina Trophy, while teammate Scott Niedermayer took home the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.  Boston goalie Andrew Raycroft won the Calder Trophy as top rookie and Kris Draper of the Red Wings received the Selke Trophy as top defensive forward.

Following disappointing postseasons, several teams made coaching changes.

Eliminated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Ottawa Senators fired Jacques Martin - who found a job with the Florida Panthers - and replaced him with Bryan Murray.  In Colorado, Tony Granato slid over to the assistant position to make room for Joel Quenneville, who was fired by St. Louis in February.

Another pair of coaches are dealing with health issues as Pat Burns of New Jersey announced he had colon cancer and Nashville associate coach Brent Peterson revealed he was battling Parkinson’s disease.

The hockey world also lost its share of former members this year, including Sid Smith, Billy Reay, Gerry McNeil and Ivan Hlinka.  But none were as shocking as the passing of Sergei Zholtok, who died of heart failure in November.

The 31-year-old Zholtok, who was playing in his native Latvia during the lockout, left a game in the third period and collapsed and died in the locker room.  He missed time during the 2002-03 season with the Minnesota Wild due to an irregular heartbeat.

The NHL did have a few good moments in 2004.  New television deals were struck with NBC, ESPN and ESPN2, Brian Boucher set a pair of modern-day goaltending records and three world-class defensemen were inducted to the Hall of Fame.

With its current contracts with ABC and ESPN expired, the league latched on to NBC, which had been without one of the four major team sports once the NBA departed prior to the 2003-04 season. It signed a one-year, $60 million contract with ESPN, which will broadcast only playoff games while ESPN2 handles regular-season coverage.

Boucher of the Phoenix Coyotes reeled off five consecutive shutouts and a streak of 332 minutes, 1 second without allowing a goal.  Alex Connell of the 1927-28 Senators is the only goalie in NHL history to record six straight shutouts.

But Connell - who also holds the longest scoreless streak in league annals of 461:29 - did it 16 years before the center-ice red line was added at a time when forward passing was prohibited in the offensive zone.  George Hainsworth of the 1928-29 Canadiens also went 343:05 without allowing a goal.

The dark arenas created by the lockout did not prevent Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy from having their day in the sun as the trio was enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in November.

Bourque’s name was synonymous with the Bruins for 20 1/2 years before he requested a trade in order to capture the Stanley Cup. The five-time Norris Trophy winner and 19-time All-Star got his wish and was dealt to Colorado, which won the championship in 2001.

Bourque currently sits in ninth place on the all-time points list with 1,579 - 48 more than Coffey, who holds the mark for most goals by a defenseman in a single season with 48 in 1985-86.

Coffey, who won three Norris Trophies and earned 14 All-Star Game appearances, captured three Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s and picked up another with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991.

In 35th place on the all-time points list, Murphy never won a Norris Trophy but has four championships to his credit - two with Pittsburgh and two with Detroit.

The trio were joined by current Coyotes senior executive vice president Cliff Fletcher, who served as general manager of the Flames franchise for 19 years, including its 1989 championship season.

One day before Bettman announced the lockout, Team Canada capped an entertaining World Cup of Hockey tournament with a 3-2 triumph over Finland in the championship game.

Unfortunately for hockey fans, it may have been the last contest involving NHL players witnessed for quite a while.