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The Globe and Mail

As locked-out players scramble to find a home, fans wonder when NHL will return

A padlock is seen on a parking lot gate outside Rogers Arena, the home of the Vancouver Canucks NHL hockey team, in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday September 16, 2012. The NHL locked out its players at midnight Saturday, the fourth shutdown for the NHL since 1992, including a year-long dispute that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.

Darryl Dyck

It didn't take long for signs the NHL lockout is under way to materialize on Sunday, with European leagues giddy to take advantage of the opportunity to sign out-of-work stars.

Beginning at 2 a.m., media who cover Russia's Continental Hockey League started to announce the additions of NHL players including Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin to various teams based in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and beyond.

Those departures are likely just the beginning. During the last lockout, more than 380 players found homes overseas for at least part of the 2004-05 season.

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Back in North America, with the NHL's collective bargaining agreement expiring at midnight, players will no longer be permitted to train at team facilities and will have to scramble for ice time at local rinks on their own.

Some were even stripped of team jerseys and socks at practice sessions prior to the deadline.

NHL teams, meanwhile, began removing images of players from their official websites and posting "a message to our fans" from the league's head office explaining the situation.

"This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room," the statement read. "The league, the clubs and the players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible."

Few expect "soon" to describe when this stalemate will end.

The NHLPA responded to the lockout with a message of its own, releasing a YouTube video of several players discussing the work stoppage and why they were opposed to it.

"We don't need to have a lockout," Toronto Maple Leafs netminder James Reimer said. "We could keep playing and bargain at the same time. That's not what the owners want to do. They want to lockout and use it as a tactic. So the fans lose the game they love and we don't get to perform in front of the fans."

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Does this mean games will be missed?

Not necessarily. NHL training camps weren't scheduled to open until Friday and there's a long preseason schedule that will begin to be cancelled later in the week.

The regular season, however, doesn't begin until Oct. 11, leaving the league and the NHL Players' Association plenty of time to save the full season in the coming weeks.

Even if an agreement is reached in early to mid-October, it's likely a full schedule can still be played, as there's talk they would simply push some of the dates back and award the Stanley Cup even later into June than usual.

What if it goes longer than that?

Most expect this dispute to drag into November and December, which would mean at best a shortened 50 or 60-game season, much like the NBA played a 66-game schedule last season due to their own labour dispute.

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The prospect of losing a full season will not become reality until at least late January. Back in 1994-95, the NHL played a 48-game regular season which began on Jan. 20 and went into May for the first time ever due to a lockout.

The Cup was awarded to the New Jersey Devils on June 24, nearly two weeks later than normal.

During the 2004-05 lockout, the entire season was cancelled on Feb. 16, which will again stand as an absolute drop dead date for games to be played.

What else changes if the season doesn't start on time?

For one, you'll notice a lot less hockey on TV.

During the last lockout, Hockey Night in Canada became Movie Night in Canada, with host Ron MacLean taking viewers through some classics every Saturday night.

Other networks such as TSN and Sportsnet, meanwhile, filled in as best they could with classic games and other sporting events.

Overall, however, no NHL hockey will mean ratings decline across the board.

This time around, it's expected the American Hockey League and Canadian junior leagues will gain even more prominence on broadcasting networks and in media coverage. Both will be flush with talent as NHL teams began sending their top youngsters to those teams over the past few days.

Because of the calibre of players that are expected to play in the AHL, in particular, this could be a record setting season for that league in terms of attendance and revenue.

"I wouldn't say we're eagerly anticipating a work stoppage," AHL president Dave Andrews said. "The best interests of the sport are served by the NHL playing.

"But if it comes to that, we will enjoy significantly greater media coverage in North America and Europe and more television exposure in Canada and the United States. It creates revenue opportunities we don't normally experience."

While players can find work in other leagues, the same can't be said for team officials and arena staff, as many will either be paid less or laid off entirely should the dispute go on for several months. Many who rely on the NHL for an income are seasonal or part-time workers and will have to look elsewhere for employment.

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