Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Frustration mounting

Players finding it increasingly difficult to stay optimistic

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Olli JOKINEN emerged from a dressing room at the MTS Iceplex Friday afternoon and, after working his way through a phalanx of reporters and TV cameras, managed a grin and then asked:

"Is it over?"

If only.

The NHL's ongoing lockout served up a significant -- and ominous -- development Friday with the cancellation of all regular-season games to the end of November. That makes 326 games in total, including 20 that would have involved Jokinen and his Winnipeg Jets teammates.

And the news that more contests had been spiked only served to further crank up the frustration levels of the Jets and local NHLers who have been skating regularly and praying for a resolution.

"It's tough. By this point we've gone through so many emotions," said Jet defenceman Mark Stuart. "It's up and down... you're hopeful one day and then not so much another. It's anger some days, but now it's trying to keep that wait-and-see (outlook).

"Optimism is getting smaller and smaller but that's all you can do to stay sane: try to keep that optimism and hope we can bridge that gap."

There were just eight skaters and one goalie working out on Friday, including Jokinen, Stuart, Bryan Little and Jim Slater of the Jets, Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils, Ryan Reaves of the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators Colin Wilson and Ryan Garbutt of the Dallas Stars. Jets' captain Andrew Ladd was in Chicago Friday night for a charity game with some of his ex-Chicago Blackhawks' teammates.

And with games cancelled until December, expect more and more players to further examine their European options, including Zajac, who plans to return to New Jersey after the weekend while his agent gets busy trying to find a temporary hockey home.

"You're definitely frustrated. You have a little bit of hope over the last couple of weeks that something might get done," Zajac said. "I'm itching to play and when you hear that nothing really has come of (the negotiations), you definitely get down.

"But it's part of the process and hopefully something gets done. This is the ugly part of hockey and we don't want it to last much longer."

Garbutt, a Winnipeg product, was the new face at Friday's skate. He's worked his tail off to get to the NHL -- after earning a degree in economics at Brown University he played in Corpus Christi (CHL), Gwinnett (ECHL) then to Chicago and Texas of the AHL before being promoted to the Stars' big club and suiting up for 20 games.

The Stars liked his grit and skill set enough to offer him a one-way, two-year deal over the summer. And now the lockout derails all that.

"I was one of those people that was starting to feel good about the situation," he said. "I was hopeful they could get something done, but if the owners are planning on taking money back from the players after they've signed contracts... I haven't heard of any profession where that happens. It's just really frustrating.

"I think it's pretty clear to everybody what's going on: the owners are just operating off a script. Something's got to change and in the next month, hopefully things do.

"You definitely don't want to miss the whole season and whatever happened seven or eight years ago, you don't want that to happen again," he added. "The fans came back then, but you definitely don't want to do that (again). The NHL had seven years of growing revenue, so that's not something you want to take a step back on."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 C4

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