The NHL locked out its players at midnight Saturday, becoming the third major sports league to impose a work stoppage in the last 18 months.
The action also marks the fourth shutdown for the NHL since 1992, including a year-long dispute that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season when the league held out for a salary cap.
The deal which ended that dispute expired at midnight, and Commissioner Gary Bettman followed through on his pledge to lock out the players with no new agreement in place.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the lockout was effective at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.
For the Philadelphia Flyers, however, there is a sliver of good news if the lockout lasts for a significant amount of time: Several of their promising young players will get a chance to stay sharp by playing for their American Hockey League affiliate.
Players who are exempt from waivers were sent to the AHL, and Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Erik Gustafsson, Zac Rinaldo, and Eric Wellwood were among the 26 players assigned to the Adirondack Phantoms over recent days.
In addition, defenseman Danny Syvret and forward Matt Ford cleared waivers Friday and will attend the Phantoms’ camp — which starts Sept. 29 in Voorhees .
“For me, I’m just thinking of it as a positive,” said Rinaldo, a feisty winger who was second in the NHL with 232 penalty minutes last season. “Go down to the ‘A’ and get better as a hockey player. It might be a confidence builder for me. Just go down and play some hockey and not get involved with too much fighting. Just score some goals.”
“I’m really happy I have someplace to play, and I think the AHL is going to be if not the best league in the world, in the top two,” Gustafsson said. “There will be a lot of young players down there and you get to stay in game shape.”
When (if?) the labor problems end, Gustafsson will be in contention for a spot on the Flyers’ third defensive pairing.
“This is the best opportunity I have ever had to make the roster and get some playing time,” said Gustafsson, who played in 30 games with the Flyers last season and was plus-12. “I had a good summer and I feel good about myself, so the sooner it starts, the better.”
The 5-foot-10 Gustafsson has put on some weight; he’s now 200 pounds.
One of the NHL’s top rookies last season, the 19-year-old Couturier also gained five pounds over the summer. He said he is “more prepared and ready” than a year ago.
“I know a little more what to expect,” he said, conceding that “it’s a little frustrating not knowing if the season will get going. But as long as I can play and get in game shape, it’ll be good whenever (the collective-bargaining agreement) gets done.”
Couturier, who had 13 goals and was second on the team with a plus-18 rating last season, has been working out at the Skate Zone in Voorhees since early August. He is expected to center the Flyers’ third line.
The Phantoms’ camp will start in 13 days. If the lockout is not over, some Flyers will be wearing Phantoms jerseys and some may play in Europe. Others may rent ice time and skate at the Flyers’ Voorhees facility.
Asked if he would help direct the Phantoms during their training camp if the NHL has not resolved its labor issues, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was noncommittal. “I don’t want to talk about the future because I don’t know what it is yet,” he said.
At least he knows that some of the players who figure to play key roles for the Flyers will have a place to play — even if the lockout lasts.
“When young players are on the ice, it’s always good for development,” Laviolette said. “Certainly we wish they were here, but that will be determined.”