BY GEORGE RICHARDS
The general consensus is there are two teams who will be most negatively affected by a prolonged NHL lockout: The Los Angeles Kings and Florida Panthers.
The Kings' successful run to their first Stanley Cup championship in their 45-year history captivated Southern California and a lengthy wait to raise that banner could affect their ability to capitalize on the moment.
In South Florida, the Panthers were retaking their spot in the marketplace. After a decade of futility and turnover, the Panthers are definitely trending north -- and fans are taking notice.
At midnight on Sunday, however, the NHL put the Panthers and Kings plans on hold for a little while by locking out its players for the third time since 1994. The last time there was a lockout, the entire 2004-05 season was lost -- and the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to build on its Stanley Cup win in 2004.
The Panthers may not have won it all like their rivals across the state, but there is definitely excitement surrounding this Florida team. Last year the Panthers won their first division title in franchise history and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Devils to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.
Florida helped itself last year by getting off to a good start as the Heat were locked out and the Dolphins and Hurricanes struggled. The Heat, the defending NBA champs, are back next month.
Any concern the Panthers will lose the momentum they gained? Oh yeah.
"We had a fun team to watch,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said last week. "Anytime you are dealing with professional sports, it's hard for most people to see the logic in these kind of negotiations. We're no different from the fans -- management, players, coaches. We have a great passion for the game, we care for the game. We want to keep stoking the fire and the enthusiasm we had for this team.''
Said goalie Jose Theodore: "We did accomplish a lot of things as a team. We did some things people didn't expect. We know what our potential is. We can't take a step back. Teams will be ready for us, but we know what we can do. We want to take things to the next level.''
In 2004-05, the battle with the players was systematic; the league argued that a salary cap was needed so small-market (and non-traditional market teams like Florida and Tampa Bay) could compete with the heavies. A salary cap was instituted and salaries rose.
The Panthers, a franchise which operates in the red, could actually be helped financially by a short-term work stoppage.
If the lockout wiped out the opening month, the Panthers would lose just three home games and would save big bucks by not paying salary nor paying for a long scheduled road trip Long Island, Winnipeg and Minnesota.
October is traditionally a tough sell for NHL teams around the league -- and especially in Florida.
Although Opening Night against the Lightning on Oct. 13 is expected to be a sellout, the Panthers would struggle to fill their cavernous arena against the New York Islanders, Columbus, Winnipeg and Ottawa in October/early November.
An NHL return by November would work out pretty good for the Panthers -- since that is the time of year when their attendance begins an upward trend.
Snowbirds usually bring better crowds in Sunrise -- and the Panthers have their annual Thanksgiving week homestand stacked with traditional draws the Rangers, Red Wings, Capitals and Flyers.
The Panthers are scheduled to raise their first team-related banner since 1996 on Opening Night against the Lightning. Florida's division title banner is expected to hang near its 1996 Eastern Conference championship flag originally raised at Miami Arena.
Before winning the division championship last season, the Panthers had missed the playoffs for an NHL-record 10 consecutive seasons over a span of 11 years.
"We had some sort of success last year and we're anxious to get back and start where we left off,'' said center Stephen Weiss, who was drafted by the Panthers in 2003.
"It is disappointing. But that's the nature of this business sometimes. These things need to be done and we'll be patient and make sure we'll get a deal that makes sense for both sides so we don't have to keep doing this every four or five years.''
The NHLPA came up with a unique proposal, one that caught the NHL by surprise. The players' union would reduce its share from NHL revenues with that money being put into a franchise-assistance fund which commissioner Gary Bettman would be in control of.
That money could help out franchises which need a little extra financial boost. While there is revenue sharing -- the Panthers are thought to have cashed league checks in each of the seven years of the CBA -- it is a complex system which teams cannot count on to be there from year to year.
The NHLPA's plan, however, would let teams know that money -- as much as $25 million per season -- would be there for them in the future. Teams would then know they could spend more money on player salaries and try and improve their lot.
The NHL, which has rejected the NHLPA's proposals outright, says the union's projections for continued revenue growth at 7 percent is too high and says teams like the Panthers will be fine if only from paying less salary.
The union feels there should be a better revenue sharing system with the big money franchises sharing more of the wealth. Teams like the Rangers and Bruins don't seem keen on helping out the likes of the Panthers and Hurricanes anymore than they already are. That, the union says, is a problem.
"Our proposal is for us to partner with the high-revenue teams to help out the teams which are hurting financially,'' said Mike Weaver, the Panthers' defenseman who serves as the team's union representative.
"Giving them a little help financially and from a business standpoint gives the whole league structure. We gave up some concessions to do this. We're not telling the high-revenue teams to foot the entire bill. We're partners. We're willing to help out.''