Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Gretzky Feels Not So Great over Hockey's Stalemate

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Gretzky Feels Not So Great over Hockey's Stalemate

Article excerpt

Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history, was downright sullen on Thursday night, and it had nothing to do with his all-star team's unexpected 4-3 loss to the Detroit Vipers in an exhibition before Team Gretzky's European tour.

Gretzky could handle that. His team played four-men short, and the 16 players who played had not played competitive hockey in more than two months. They had practiced for only a couple of days. The Vipers, meanwhile, were in midseason form two months into the International Hockey League campaign.

So, the loss was not the problem. Instead, the sad state of affairs in the National Hockey League had Gretzky in a dark mood.

Here it was, the first day of December, and there had yet to be a regular-season NHL game. The owners' labor lockout was in its 62nd day. The regular season should have started two months ago.

Instead, players have been forced to seek employment in Europe, or play on tours such as Gretzkys, while management and union negotiators try to forge a new collective bargaining agreement as time and the league's momentum slips away.

"We had a great window of opportunity," Gretzky lamented. "I still say we should have played the season and saw what happened. I think we've shot ourselves in the foot. I don't think we'll ever get back to where we were last May and June when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup.

"Time heals, but we had a tremendous wave to ride. We didn't ride it, and it was a mistake on everyone's part. . . . We could have rode a big wave and made (hockey) really something special. One day that may happen again, but we don't know if it'll ever happen. I don't know how we're going to fare."

He knows how the league would fare if the owners cancel the season.

"If they cancel hockey this year, it's absolutely crazy," Gretzky said. "If we don't play the season, I look at it as disastrous. I don't know if we'll ever recover from that. . . . We're riding by the seat of our pants right now."

Gretzky compared hockey's plight to baseball, where the players' strike led to the owners' cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1903.

"Baseball's big in the United States, and I hear people, big baseball fans, say they are thoroughly disgusted," Gretzky said. "I'm not sure if baseball will be able to bounce back to where it once were. If baseball's in that situation, hockey's definitely in trouble if we don't play."

If the NHL has a regular season, it would probably begin in early January and be of a 50-game duration, which might not be all bad. The NHL has been criticized for years for its marathon 84-game schedule.

"A 40- or 50-game schedule, believe it or not, might be smart for this league because every game will mean something," Gretzky said. "To get in the playoffs, you have to work hard for 50 games. …

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