CORAL SPRINGS, Fla.—
The NHL knows how this NBA story ends. Or at least one possible rendering.
They have been there, owners leveraging players, the threat of a hard cap, the potential loss of a full season after a previous lockout robbed the sport of half a season.
So as the Florida Panthers skate, as the Miami Heat find their season on ice, there is plenty of commiseration from those north of the Broward-Dade border for those due south.
“I don’t see ‘em playing for a half year,” veteran Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanoski said. “If they’re going to save something, it’s going to be half the season.
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“A hard cap is a tough thing, we know it. But at the end of the day it can work and it might have to.”
Because it just might beat the alternative, an alternative experienced by several in the Panthers locker room, a waiting game played out day-by-day, week-by-week, at home and far from home.
In the NHL’s storied lore, there is no 2004-05. It never happened, players locked out the entire season, the only North American league shuttered an entire season due to a labor dispute. That impasse came after a lockout cut the league’s schedule in half in 1994-95. Revenue givebacks, the league’s push for a hard cap, insurgent agents, federal mediation all factored into the equation.
Now, 13 years after their own league lost half a season to a lockout, NBA players find themselves fighting revenue givebacks, the league’s push for a hard cap, insurgent agents, as a federal mediator prepares to enter the equation next week.
To a degree, the Panthers’ locker room represents a cross-section of possibilities of a season-long lockout.
Jovanoski played the waiting game. Defenseman Brian Campbell immediately bolted for a full season in Finland. Right wing Matt Bradley stayed home in the hopes of a resolution, then moved overseas. And center Stephen Weiss was put on a path not available to NBA players, biding time in the minor leagues.
As they look ahead to Saturday’s home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning at BankAtlantic Center, the four looked back to where they stood seven years ago and where the Heat and the rest of the NBA’s players stand today.
By 2004, Jovanoski was an All-Star and Canadian Olympian. He was settled into a career that already had provided financial security. So he waited. And waited. Until a season was lost.
“It was a week-to-week thing, I think, up until December, January,” he said. “And then, after that, obviously, you’re trying to stay in shape.”
After a while, Jovanoski said, reality sets in.
“It’s tough, though,” he said. “You go through days, you’re like, ‘I won’t get in the gym because there’s no hope because those guys are miles apart.’ Yeah, it’s tough.
“Coming back that next year, for me, it was like your body just taking a year off. But not only that, you take pride in how many games you play and you’ve lost 82.”
Campbell didn’t want to take that chance, so he headed to Helsinki, just as NBA stars such as Tony Parker, Andrei Kirilenko and Kenyon Martin have taken the current overseas option. The difference is only 15 percent of NBA players have availed themselves to that current possibility, as opposed to 60 percent of the NHL’s players in 2004-05.
“For me,” Campbell said, “it was nice that I got to keep active and didn’t lose a full season. But you’re always on pins and needles never knowing if it’s going to end or if you will be ready.”
Bradley, like many of today’s NBA players, decided to bide his time.
“For a while,” he said, “you’re kind of sitting there like, ‘Am I working hard for nothing right now?’ “
Eventually Austria awaited.
“After a couple of months, it didn’t look like things were going to happen. I wanted to play hockey,” he said. “The nice thing about it was I got to spend Christmas at home, which I hadn’t done in forever. But when you can’t play hockey, you kind of feel lost.”
While the NBA does have its D-League, it is not a true farm system like the American Hockey League, nor does the NBA have two-way contracts, which Weiss found himself playing under early his career.
“I was 20 years old, got to go down to San Antonio and play hockey with some good buddies of mine, so I had a blast,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, in that you want to play in the best league possible.”
The NBA has yet to reach its point of no-return, as the NHL did on Feb. 16, 2005. And that, Campbell said, is the thing, you never know it’s over until it’s over.
“Our game got better,” he said. “It’s been the only blessing maybe out of it, it grew and it got better, I think the hockey got better. That’s the positive. It’s too bad that the season got lost.”
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