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Fears for ice hockey over NHL lockout

Teemu Selanne weaves his way out of his own end and lofts a perfectly-timed pass up the middle of the ice through a tangle of sticks to Justin Williams who goes in on a breakaway and scores.

December is usually the time Selanne and Williams square off against each other as opponents -- Selanne as the star forward for the Anaheim Ducks and Williams with the cross-town rival Los Angeles Kings.

But this is no normal year for the National Hockey League (NHL), as a protracted labour dispute between the NHL Players Association and the league resulted in the owners locking out the players since September 16.

Selanne and Williams are part of a group of about two dozen Kings and Ducks players who get together every Wednesday to skate and play pick-up games at the Anaheim Ice arena that serves as the practice facility for the Ducks.

The checking is minimal and the pace is palatable but for these players it is the only hockey they get during the lockout because unlike many of their NHL teammates they chose not to travel to Europe or Asia to play in the pro leagues.

"It is hard. My situation is that I have four kids. At age 42 it would be selfish to leave my family here and go play (in Europe)," said Selanne, who is one of 10 current players who has been in the league for the last three work stoppages.

"I feel I need to be here. I got way more than I ever dreamed of as a hockey player and I am not talking about money. I never think about the money.

"I would like to play more but if I don't then I am still the happiest camper."

The NHL owners and players union are meeting again this week after failing to come to a new collective bargaining agreement last week with the help of a mediator.

The work stoppage has already forced the cancellation of regular-season games through December 14 as well as the annual outdoor Winter Classic and the All-Star Games in Columbus, Ohio.

"I think the NHL is really trying to force us to break down," Selanne said. "They are not even willing to negotiate. Just saying 'take it or leave it' is wasting our time."

The last NHL lockout saw the entire 2004-05 season wiped out. Selanne doesn't see the issues in this lockout being as contentious as the last one.

He blames the owners and says if they lose another season it could be the NHL's death knell for teams in some of the smaller US markets.

"I am really shocked it has gone on this long because the issues aren't as big as last time," Selanne said. "The last lockout they (owners) got what they wanted. That was a big cost. One year, no hockey.

"Now the issues are not so big and if we miss another year it will be suicide for hockey for many cities."

In Canada, the lockout meant that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had to cancel its hugely popular annual "Kraft Hockeyville," where cities across the country compete to be declared the nation's "most passionate hockey community."

In the US the situation is more dire. Franchises that were already on thin ice financially are in danger of going bankrupt. Restaurants, hotels and bars that rely on revenue from game nights have also been feeling the pinch.

In Nashville, having an NHL team brings in an annual economic spinoff of about $410 million in revenues and job creation, a study by the Predators showed. One Nashville restaurant owner says his business is down 50 percent on game nights.

"In Canada it doesn't matter. The NHL could take a five-year break they (fans) will still come back," Selanne said.

"But look at the teams like Tampa, Florida, Nashville and Phoenix. They all have played great hockey lately.

"It should be time to take the next step in those cities because finally they are having some success on the ice. They are good teams and they are making the playoffs and now fans in those cities are going to find something else."

Scottie Upshall is a forward for the Florida Panthers and has seen first hand the lockout's impact on a small US market.

"It has had a huge effect because it stops what momentum we had," said Upshall. "We had fans excited about Florida hockey. We had a good competitive team. It's unfair for the fans and for us that we are not playing."

Upshall, who is from Fort McMurray, Canada, says his family is suffering more than most because they live and breathe hockey in the winter months.

"Canadians are much more informed on what is going on with the lockout," Upshall said. "Being Canadian there is no question without hockey it is a long winter. My family have had to start to find hobbies they never had before."

Going overseas may not be a viable option for veteran Selanne who may retire if the entire season is lost. But he says it is a good way for the younger players to stay in game shape.

There are about 200 NHL players playing overseas in leagues in Russia, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland to name a few.

Others, like rising stars Brayden Schenn (Philadelphia), Taylor Hall (Edmonton) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix) are playing in the American Hockey League.

Some players have gotten even more creative. Carolina Hurricanes forward Anthony Stewart is taking a huge salary cut to skate for the Nottingham Panthers of Britain's Elite League.

Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Johnny Oduya, meanwhile, used his time off to travel to Thailand to play in the annual Land of Smiles Tournament with the Bangkok Flying Farangs.

"I think it is important for the young guys to go play there and to keep playing," Selanne said.

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