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Hockey Hall inductees can't avoid lockout talk


TORONTO — There is something missing from Joe Sakic’s new plaque at the Hockey Hall of Fame and it’s not because the printer made a mistake.

Among the list of his many achievements is no mention of his 21st NHL season, the one that was never played because of the 2004-05 lockout. With the sport back in another dark period brought on by another labour dispute, Sakic reflected on the year that never was on the day he took his place among hockey’s greats.

“I lost a year of hockey,” Sakic said Monday prior to the induction ceremony. “It would have been 21 years instead of 20. That’s what you lose.”

Fellow inductees Mats Sundin and Adam Oates were also in the NHL when the last lockout hit while Pavel Bure, the fourth member of the class, was already retired.

Sundin never managed to win a Stanley Cup during his career and can’t help but wonder what could have been had the 2004-05 been played. His Maple Leafs were on a run of six consecutive playoff appearances before that work stoppage.

“It was awful,” said Sundin. “I think it’s devastating.”

While all four of the inductees seem to have thoroughly enjoyed their induction weekend, the current lockout made it a more subdued affair than usual. They were to have been honoured at Air Canada Centre prior to a scheduled Leafs-Devils game on Friday night — a missed opportunity in particular for Sundin, the longtime Toronto captain, and Oates, who grew up in the city.

Sundin is back living in his native Sweden now but the impact of another work stoppage hasn’t gone unnoticed even from a distance.

“I think it’s huge,” he said. “The National Hockey League is kind of representing the game of hockey. It’s the biggest representative of the game of hockey in the world. When the NHL is not going, people lose focus on hockey.

“For everybody that is involved in the sport, it’s huge to get the guys back playing as soon as possible.”

Added Sakic: “It hurts the players, it hurts the owners, it hurts the fans and it hurts the game.”

The two men at the centre of collective bargaining negotiations, commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, both attended Monday night’s ceremony. Bettman referred to “difficult times” after paying tribute to the inductees in a speech.

“All of us — fans, teams, players — look forward to the time the game returns,” said Bettman.

The lockout was also a hot topic of discussion on the red carpet as honoured members and others from the hockey world arrived for the ceremony. Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, who was active in the NHLPA during his playing days and later worked for the union, expressed concern for the sport.

“I think that one of the main dangers is that the fans and the game is taken for granted, that it’s going to come back to the same health that it was before,” said Gartner. “When you look at the last time that it happened, coming back to record attendance and record profits and taking a business that went from $2.5-billion to $3.3-billion in revenue, I think that tendency can be — and I don’t think it’s consciously — is to take all that for granted.

“I think that there’s a real danger in it. I sense that there’s more of a danger now than there was in the past.”

Igor Larionov, another Hall of Famer who now works as a player agent, called for “common sense.”

“I’m very positive it’s going to be resolved in a matter of weeks, maybe two or three weeks,” said Larionov. “You’ll see the game back in shape and the players playing.”

All four members of this year’s Hall of Fame class were affected by a labour disruption during their careers — Bure was playing for the Vancouver Canucks during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season — and it’s reasonable to expect that trend will continue for some time after four work stoppages in the last 20 years.

Oates finds himself in a unique position because the lockout has delayed the start of his first season as a head coach with the Washington Capitals. He was hired for the position on the same June day he found out he was heading into the Hall, making “for a pretty emotional 15 minutes.”

The last season of his playing career came in 2003-04 with the Edmonton Oilers and he was on the fence about retiring afterwards. The decision ended up being made for him.

“I thought about (continuing to play) because I wasn’t happy with my year in Edmonton, so I didn’t really want to go out that way,” he said. “I was considering it, but (the lockout) made it easy.”

He doesn’t harbour any regrets about being quietly ushered out of the game. In fact, it fit the personality of somebody who avoided the limelight by making his name as an excellent passer rather than a scorer.

“That’s kind of the guy I am — a little bit understated,” said Oates. “Actually Joe (Sakic) said it this morning: We’re all understated guys, believe it or not.”

Bure’s career was ended prematurely because of knee injuries and he only ended up playing 702 NHL games, just slightly less than half as many as Sundin, Sakic and Oates. But he made the most of what time he had by scoring 437 goals.

He never dreamed he’d find a plaque with his name in the Hall and spoke with emotion in his voice during his induction speech.

“I think it’s the biggest achievement you can get in hockey,” said Bure. “The selection committee combines everything you’ve done for hockey worldwide, so for me it’s a huge honour. It feels great.”

For now, hockey at its highest level remains on hold.

Sakic works as an adviser to the Colorado Avalanche and is as anxious as anybody to see the NHL resume. Looking back, the pain of sitting out an entire season quickly went away when a new CBA was signed.

“I remember coming back that next training camp I was pretty excited to be back and playing the game,” said Sakic. “You realize how much you miss the game.”

 
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