For hockey's next 'Great One,' season may be put on ice

An announcement officially scrapping the 2004-05 NHL campaign could come as early as Monday.

Sidney Crosby is a fresh-faced hockey wunderkind who has drawn comparisons to legend Wayne Gretzky, including from the Great One himself. In any other year, the 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, would be looking forward to the National Hockey League's draft, where he'd be selected with the first pick overall, receive gobs of money, and be showcased by the league's marketing department.

But none of those things look likely for Mr. Crosby this year. Instead, he may continue doing his stick handling for the Rimouski Oceanic, riding the buses of the Quebec League. Or maybe he'll fly to Europe and hook up with a pro team there.

That's because the NHL will almost certainly officially cancel its season this week - after five months of exchanging proposals, counterproposals, and recriminations without a shred of progress in collective bargaining with its players association. Already the league has scrapped more than two-thirds of its regular-season games and reached the point where just a skeleton schedule can be salvaged.

The cancellation would mark the first time a full season of any professional sport had been washed out. Official word could come as early as Monday.

"Sidney is ready to move on to the next level," says his agent, Pat Brisson. "We just don't know where that might be right now."

The NHL is losing money and wants to institute a salary cap, a proposal the players association rejects. League commissioner Gary Bettman said last week that he would cancel the season if representatives of the two sides weren't formulating a collective agreement on Saturday and Sunday. As of Saturday night, the respective bargaining teams weren't even in the same city, let alone closing an agreement.

One of the byproducts of this lost season would be the cancellation (or at least postponement) of the 2005 draft, originally scheduled for June in Ottawa, with Crosby, a 5 ft. 10 in., 185-lb. center, as its certain No. 1 selection.

In 1987, the National Football League opted to field teams with replacement players to erode and ultimately cripple the players union. In September 1994, Major League Baseball canceled the World Series. But never has a league blown up an entire season, and those inside the league fear the lockout may drag into next year as well.

There have been rumblings about the NHL going with replacement players in an attempt to break the NHL Players Association. While Crosby initially suggested he might play as a replacement player, he quickly clarified that he would not.

"Sidney just wants to play the game," Mr. Brisson said by phone from Montreal. "All the business decisions to be made off the ice will be made by Sidney and his family, and they'll face those issues when it's time. He doesn't want to be distracted by all these other things."

It seems like nothing could distract Crosby, even a pay cut. In its first proposal in collective bargain, the players association made major concessions, including sizable cuts to salaries and bonuses for entry-level players. The players' association proposed a cap of approximately $1 million a season for four years for rookies. In years past, top first-year players made upwards of $3 million in salary and bonuses.

If Crosby was discouraged by this blow to his income-earning potential, his play didn't reveal it. Last season he became the first 16-year-old to lead the Canadian major junior leagues in scoring and the most valuable player. This year he picked up where he left off, leading Canada to the gold at the world under-20 tournament in North Dakota last month.

Crosby is the biggest draw in the Quebec league in a generation: More than 14,000 fans will fill the Colisée in Quebec City Tuesday night to see Rimouski play the hometown Remparts. Because of this, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League officials will probably be cool if Crosby seeks out a million-dollar contract with a European pro team next year.

Gilles Courteau, the commissioner of the QMJHL, says that Europe is not an option for Crosby, at least if the owners of the Rimouski Oceanic want him. "The only thing I can say is that he's under contract with Rimouski and the [QMJHL] for another three years," he says. "If there's no NHL I don't know what Sidney is going to do, but I know on our side that, according to his contract, he has to come back. When you sign a major junior contract at our level, you sign for four years."

Other agents say that the dispute between Rimouski and Crosby for next season will go to court. Said one agent: "It's likely that Crosby's side could argue that at age 18 he has a right to work ... to seek employment as he sees fit. Unfortunately, no matter which side prevails in that first trip before a judge, it's likely to be appealed and tied up in the courts."

Against this backdrop of discord, Crosby has been playing better than ever. Until he was held pointless in a win over Gatineau on Friday, Crosby had averaged three-and-a-half points per game over an 11-game stretch, leading his team to 10 wins and one tie. "It's amazing how he's been able to stay grounded, because it has been a lot harder to be Sidney Crosby today than Wayne Gretzky or any of those other stars who came along before him," Brisson says.

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