This week, the NHL elected to cancel the first two weeks of their regular season due to the current impasse in labor negotiations with the players association.
In total, 82 games were cancelled, the equivalent of one team’s full season schedule. And while headlines regarding the current lockout focus on the clash of stubborn personalities in NHLPA union leader Donald Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, there are endless more angles to discuss.
As pointed out in my previous column, any given regular season NHL game has the potential to make someone a fan for life. It also has the potential to open up the game to young fans in particular that may eventually develop their own skills to one day play professional hockey.
But see, while you and I may spend time thinking about these possibilities, commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners perpetrating the current lockout are acting in a shortsighted manner. They aren’t thinking about the five-year-old Jets fan who plays on his local youth hockey team and what NHL games mean to him and his future.
The owners are also not thinking about the ushers, vendors, and other game day operations staffers and their families.
Nope, they are thinking about putting a lot of extra dimes in their pockets as soon as possible at the expense of their labor source.
Which brings me to the angle of focus for this column.
Not only does this lockout take money out of the players pockets, but it prevents many veteran players from the ability to walk out into the sunset playing their best hockey or even playing hockey at all.
And while the NHL has slowly prospered since the last lockout and missed season of 2004-05, there are a handful of former Sharks that San Jose fans did not get the opportunity to watch finish their careers on a high note or even a note at all.
In no particular order, the following five players donned the teal sweater for a significant portion of their careers. Each one of them had good hockey left in them going into the 2004-05 season only to see the 2003-04 campaign to be their last time in the limelight due to the lockout.
Mike Ricci (C) San Jose Shark 1997-2004
Mike Ricci was a fan favorite wherever he went. Known for excellent penalty killing and gritty third line play while with the Sharks, Ricci was also a solid scorer during the early portion of his career with Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche organization. During the 1992-93 season Ricci posted 27 goals and 78 points and followed that up with a 30 goal season both with the Nordiques.
The Scarborough, Ontario native transformed his game to a more defensive minded gritty center while with the Sharks. Fans loved his long hair and missing front teeth as well as his no nonsense/workman-like attitude. He blocked shots, scored goals (two time twenty goal scorer with San Jose) and to this day Ricci is still a part of the most talked about Sharks line combination in history.
For quite some time the line of Scott Thornton, Ricci, and Niklas Sundstrom was the best third line in hockey.
Unfortunately, the lockout came at a bad time for Ricci. While his point totals had been steadily declining leading up to the lockout, he still had the legs and youth to be a solid contributor to the 2004-05 Sharks.
However Ricci didn’t play during the lockout and being in his mid-thirties that was too long of an absence to overcome. When the league returned Ricci found himself nearing retirement as a member of the lowly Phoenix Coyotes. Ricci played 76 games for the Coyotes in 2005-06 mustering just 16 points. The following season was his last in the league as he played just seven games for the Coyotes picking up just one assist.
Marcus Ragnarsson (D) San Jose Shark 1995-2003 and Mike Rathje (D) San Jose Shark 1993-2004
When you think of Sharks defenseman during the 1990′s, the first two names that come to mind have to be Mike Rathje and Marcus Ragnarsson. Not only do they share the same initials but these two shared time on the Sharks blue-line for many seasons. Neither were the sexy offensive blue-liners that have predominately taken over today’s game but back then they executed their defensive roles to a tee.
Unfortunately for both, the lockout came at a time that they couldn’t afford. Ragnarsson spent his last 1.5 NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers from 2002-03 through 2003-04. Another player in his mid thirties, Ragnarsson elected to retire from the league rather than wait around. Instead he returned home to play in his native Sweden.
Rathje also finished his NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers. Yet he was still a key defensive cog for the 2003-04 Sharks squad that earned the franchise’s first ever conference finals appearance. However Rathje did not play during the lockout and only played 97 games over the next two seasons for the Flyers but injuries along with the lockout helped cut his career short.
Vincent Damphousse (C) San Jose Sharks 1998-2004
Perhaps best known for his years with the Montreal Canadiens, Vincent Damphousse was one of those players whom the puck seemed to follow around like a magnet. Damphousse combined that great hockey sense with elite level talent. For his career the Montreal native scored 432 goals and added 773 assists. It is this writer’s opinion that “Vinny” belongs in the hall of fame.
Even though his years with the Sharks were clearly the tail end of his career, Damphousse still managed to be a solid top-six contributor. Acquired during the 1998-99 season, Damphousse mad a splash into the Sharks lineup scoring what I recall (having trouble verifying this on the web) to be two short-handed goals in his first game. Not only that but overall Damphousse registered 13 points in his first 12 games with San Jose.
Over the next few seasons Damphousse continued to be a team leader and top-six caliber center. In five full seasons with San Jose (to end his career) Damphousse posted season point totals of 70, 46 (in 45 gms), 58, 61, and 41.
In other words he was still an extremely productive scorer even as he aged. In his final season in the league he helped the Sharks to within six wins of a Stanley Cup. During the 2003-04 playoffs Damphousse was nearly a point per game player as he led the Sharks with 14 points in 17 games. Everyone remembers Patrick Marleau’s two hat tricks, but yes, Damphousse led the team in playoff scoring.
But instead of playing one more year with the Colorado Avalanche whom he had signed with during the Summer of 2004, Damphousse would never skate again in the NHL and it is a shame. He could have very well continued his solid play for a season or two more. Instead, fans were left wondering in the years after the lockout “whatever happened to Vincent Damphousse?”
Jeff Friesen (LW) San Jose Sharks 1994-2001
Jeff Friesen is one of the iconic Sharks of the 1990s. He flashed onto the scene with wicked speed as a young rookie and was an integral part of the Sharks teams during the decade. A consistent 60 point scorer for the Sharks, Friesen was traded along with goaltender Steve Shields to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Teemu Selanne during the 2000-01 season.
Friesen struggled with the Ducks over a season and a half before finding his way again with the New Jersey Devils and scoring a Stanley Cup winning goal for the Devils in 2003. However the lockout came at a bad time for Friesen.
While he had played in 81 games in each of the previous three seasons, Friesen didn’t play during the lockout. When the NHL returned, Friesen bounced around from three different teams the next two seasons scoring just 23 points in 123 games with Washington, Anaheim and Calgary.
Certainly there were other mitigating factors than just the lockout for the lack of NHL production from these players but each and everyone of these former Sharks had gas left in the tank going into the 2004-05 season.
And it is simply a shame that the missed season due to the lockout emptied the majority of what was left in those NHL tanks.