Another lengthy lockout could mean the end for veteran NHLers

Veteran NHLers like Todd Bertuzzi (right, attempting to score on Michigan native Ryan Miller) fear that if the lockout continues, they may not be able to return to action. (Tom Turrill/MiHockey)

By Dave Waddell -

Time isn’t only ticking down on an NHL season rapidly approaching its third month of a lockout, it’s also ticking down on careers.

After the lockout of 2004-05, over 200 players who had played in the previous NHL season retired when the league re-launched in the fall of 2005.

Among them, such legends of the game as New Jersey’s Scott Stevens and former Detroit Red Wing Brett Hull, who lasted five games into the 2005-06 season before calling it quits.

For Detroit winger Todd Bertuzzi, the race against Father Time is one he knows he can’t win if the clock runs out on negotiations and the NHL cancels the season for the second time in seven years.

“It’s not ideal,” Bertuzzi conceded. “I’ll be turning 38, got one more year (left on my contract).

“If I unfortunately have to miss a year that’s …”

Bertuzzi can’t bear to finish the thought. Like all NHLers, hockey has been the only lifestyle he has known since his teenaged years.

It’s a routine that’s become as set as well-cured concrete.

While a little extra time off helps the old guard in the league heal their bumps and bruises from a long season, there’s a point of diminishing returns.

Bertuzzi admits that point has already arrived.

“I hear some people say sometimes it benefits the older players,” Bertuzzi said. “I don’t think it really does.

“I think you got to be consistently playing, being active. You usually train for 2 ½ months in the summer and then after that you just maintain and do a little bit more.

“Going on (five) months right now with training, it gets kind of Groundhog Day-ish.”

For the Wings players who haven’t opted to sign with a European or North American minor pro team, informal skates with teammates in Detroit is the best option now.

It’s not physically draining, but it’s the mental wear and boredom that’s getting tough to deal with. These men, with their finely-tuned frames, are like thoroughbred race horses straining to run and never getting a chance to do so.

“It’s been how many days already?” Bertuzzi asks. “I’m dragging my [butt] here right now.

“We got a good group of guys, we keep it light. We get the work done that we need, but at the same time it’s always tough when you don’t know what the unknown is, what lies ahead?

Former Red Wing Brett Hull was one of the players forced to retire after the 2004-05 lockout. (Dave Reginek/DRW)

“You got to try to keep yourself busy. I’m trying to occupy my time with doing stuff with my family.”

While most players have socked away enough money to ride out the storm, others on the periphery of the NHL aren’t as fortunate.

Bertuzzi has much sympathy for the workers dependent on the NHL for their living.

“I feel bad for the employees that work,” Bertuzzi said. “I feel bad for people that run the rink, the fan.

“It’s not an ideal situation, especially for us in Detroit. We’re trying to get our city back up and moving and I don’t think it’s doing it any justice.”

It seems the public is the one area both sides can agree on in this exercise in futility.

The Wings organization has pumped out at steady series of appearances, charity events, coaching clinics and hospital visits involving management staff and retired players.

There’s a palatable sense that there’s something a little different among the fan base. Fans may just be a little more fickle about forgiving the two sides when this is all done.

“It’s the fans that are hurt the most with the lockout and everyone that’s involved around the rink,” Henrik Zetterberg said.

“We feel real bad as players that we’re not able to be out there and perform, but we’re locked out. We’re not allowed to even speak with them. It is a tough situation.

“I think also the fans should also realize why this is. It’s not the first time he (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) does this and they should basically see what his main purpose is.

“Is it to save hockey or not?”

The players have certainly decided in their minds the answer to that question.

The rather polite tone to negotiations in the early going has given way to some bellicose blasts being fired either way.

The frustrations at not being able to divvy up a financial pie worth just over $3-billion finally boiled over for Detroit defenseman Ian White recently.

White let loose with a rant directed at Bettman and his impact on the game.

“I got to be honest, I personally think he’s an idiot,” White said of Bettman to MLive.com.

“Since he’s come in I think he’s done nothing but damage the game. If you think of all the move’s he’s made, the teams that are all struggling seem to be the teams he put in places where there’s (limited support for hockey).

“Just three lockouts (under Bettman is what he’s done). I don’t know if he’s in control of the owners or what he’s saying. I think it’s (eight) owners that have to agree to have something (blocked). You’d think it would be at least 50 per cent.

“It just doesn’t seem like they’re running a democratic process.”