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September 15, 2004 - Flyers: Hockey season is a long way off

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Flyers: Hockey season is a long way off
By ROB PARENT , 09/15/2004
Today might feel like a brand new day, though for Keith Primeau, it’s just another NHL D-Day. So perhaps it’s time for Primeau to lose that same old smile.
When he joins a few would-be Flyers teammates at the Skate Zone for one last workout this morning, Primeau will feel fortunate just to be there. But you won’t be able to discern any joy by looking through the glass door at him.

"I hope when I pull on the door," Primeau said, "it’s not locked."

By the time NHL commissioner Gary Bettman adjourns a Board of Governors meeting this afternoon, then walks down a hallway at the Westin Hotel at Times Square and declares that the league is locking out its players, Primeau and his pals would have gone home ... and almost certainly for a long, long time.

Just how much time the NHL labor war that commences today will take is purely a matter of conjecture. Until Tuesday, Primeau, his NHL Players Association colleagues and most of the principals from the league’s management offices at least tried to spin the calendar by saying perhaps half a season could be salvaged, as happened in the last lockout 10 years ago.

But with D-Day dawning, it was time for Primeau to really call it a day ... if not a thousand of them.

In a phone interview with the Daily Times Tuesday, Primeau indicated the worst-case scenario of this lockout is worse than he’d been publicly predicting.

"Everyone has seen the handwriting on the wall," said Primeau. "The players have been told to prepare for a minimum of two and maybe as long as a three-year lockout. The owners have been adamant for a very long time that the only way they’re going to rectify their problems is to shove a hard salary cap down the players’ throats."

Primeau said such dire opinions were formed by the union membership "about a year-and-a-half" ago.

"There’s been no doubt in my mind for a long time now that this was the scenario that would unfold," said Primeau. "I mean, I would say different things. I would put on a happy face and try to put a positive spin on things. But all along I knew there was no doubt it was going to end up like this, because the owners have been determined all along to lock out the players.

"I don’t know if their plan is to break the union or not, but it’s clear that they think this is the solution, and it’s unfortunate because nothing good can come of it."

So a sport that already has suffered from improper legislation, too much defensive coaching and undeniable slips in popularity across the continent is about to fade into oblivion.

"It’s a shame," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said Tuesday night. "It’s just a real shame. I really don’t know what’s going to happen from here."

Whatever takes place, for better or worse, the situation isn’t likely to change much before the NFL is well into its season, and hockey is thus off the American sports radar.

"You can put any positive spin on it you want, say you’re hoping it can end in January," said Primeau, "but to me, January will be the breaking point. The last time this happened, that’s the point where the owners felt they gave in to the players. So now, they’re determined to not let that happen.

"They think the players are saying that the owners will cave again in January so it’ll be all right, but I’m here to tell the owners that we know you aren’t going to cave. I’m also here to tell them that we won’t cave, either, as long as those words, ‘hard (salary) cap’ are there. They say they gave six different proposals but any way you slice it or cut it up or whatever you call it, it amounted to some type of hard cap in all of them."

But Snider, reluctant to break ranks and talk openly about negotiations, doesn’t think the players’ take on the failed negotiations is a fair one.

"One thing I will say is that when the players talk about how they won’t accept a salary cap, my question is what’s a hard salary cap? I don’t know where that term comes from," said Snider. "The bottom line is that we’re actually talking about revenue sharing. In our proposals, we were going to give them X-percentages of the revenues. It’s a matter of determining what revenues we’re talking about."

But the players feel they’ve tried to negotiate around the salary cap issue by offering attractive salary rollbacks that were ignored by the owners.

"We made some real concessions on our last two proposals," Primeau countered. "We as players understand what’s happened with payrolls over the last 10 years, and those proposals went a long way toward addressing those problems. Myself, I thought the last proposal was kind of scary because of the draw it would have on salary growth.

"Now, I don’t know what else we could do. And I don’t know how this thing can come to any resolution."

Everyone has at least agreed on that point. Tuesday, general manager Bob Clarke killed the day golfing in a Flyers alumni tournament. The result?

"Lousy," Clarke said, "as usual."

At least that outing produced an effort, unlike non-existent negotiations.

"I’ll sit around and work out now," said Primeau. "I’ll hit the ice every now and then just to try to feel good about myself. Other than that, I’ll sit home with my family and I’ll be the school bus. I’ll have to put my wife back to work if this goes on too long."