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NHL lockout looms over 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony

TORONTO – The Hockey Hall of Fame is not a church. It just feels like one – the stained-glass ceiling soaring in the Great Hall; the Stanley Cup sitting upon a pedestal, like a chalice upon an altar; the honored members immortalized on frosted-glass plaques, looking like ghosts.

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The Hall of Fame inducted four superstars whose careers were impacted by previous work stoppages. (Reuters)

It is tempting to call it "the sanctuary of our game," as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did Monday night during the ceremony inducting Pavel Bure, Adam Oates, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin.

"Even in difficult times," Bettman said, "we find ourselves reassured to be here to recognize ultimate achievements on the ice."

But do you know what the Hockey Hall of Fame really is? It is a converted bank. And do you know what the NHL really is? It is a business, and among the things it sells are nostalgia and sentimentalism. It capitalizes on the reverence of "our game."

The lockout taints even that.

Sorry to be so cynical, and sorry to write this on an occasion that should have belonged to the inductees and the inductees alone – Bure's speed, Oates' passing, Sakic's wrist shot, Sundin's backhand.

[Related: Stanley Cup ring not required for entry into Hockey Hall of Fame]

To be fair, Bettman likely had the best intentions in an awkward, can't-win situation. He kept an otherwise low profile, along with NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr.

But we did not find ourselves reassured; we found ourselves infuriated further. While we recognized ultimate achievements on the ice, we also recognized you have to be on the ice to achieve the ultimate.

This is the third lockout in less than two decades. At worst, this will be the second season erased since 2004-05. There will be another stamp on the Stanley Cup – "SEASON NOT PLAYED" – a black mark forever. At best, there will be an abbreviated schedule, and this will be the second season with an asterisk since 1994-95.

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Mats Sundin might have hit 600 goals and 1,400 points if not for lockouts in 1994-95 and 2004-05. (Reuters)

Look around the Great Hall. Read the plaques listing all the accomplishments. It's not just that games aren't being played and revenue isn't being generated. It's that goals aren't being scored (again), points aren't being produced (again) and legends aren't being created (again) – or at least legends are being diminished (again).

The NHL loves its legends. Take the Winter Classic, which celebrates the creation myth of outdoor hockey and markets throwback merchandise and has taken the business to a new level.

Well, it has been canceled this season.

A couple of years ago, when the game was growing and everything was great, the NHL unveiled a brilliant ad campaign to promote the playoffs. TV spots showed memorable moments played backward, set to poignant piano music.

"What if this didn't happen?" the ads would ask. "What if that didn't happen?"

Fade to black.

"History will be made," the ads said.

Well, now history isn't being made. The game is going backward.

[Also: Mats Sundin's Hall of Fame plaque comes complete with hair]

Think about what didn't happen because of the previous two lockouts. Even though they all made the Hall, anyway, each of these inductees lost something because of labor disputes. Each of them might have had even better credentials on his plaque.

Bure scored 60 goals in both 1992-93 and '93-94. Then a lockout wiped out about half of the '94-95 season. He scored 20 goals in 44 games.

Similar for Oates. After putting up 112 points in 1993-94, he put up 53 in 48 games in '94-95.

At least Bure retired in 2003, before the lockout that wiped out all of 2004-05. Oates was coming off a poor season, and he said the '04-05 lockout made his retirement decision easy.

"It ended it for me," Oates said.

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Joe Sakic sandwiched 87-point campaigns around the lost season in '04-05. (Getty)

Sakic had 33 goals and 87 points in 2003-04; he had 32 goals and 87 points in '05-06. What if he had another 32 goals and another 87 points in between? He would have finished with more than 650 career goals and 1,700 points, higher on the all-time scoring list than he already is.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, the first thing Sakic mentioned was that he played 20 years. He was immensely proud of it. Asked what he lost in 2004-05 beyond money, he said: "I lost a year of hockey. It would have been 21 years instead of 20. That's what you lose."

Similar for Sundin. He had 31 goals and 75 points in 2003-04; he had 31 goals and 78 points in '05-06. What if he had another 31 goals and another 78 points in between? He would have had almost 600 goals – and maybe more, if not for '94-95, too – and more than 1,400 points.

"It's a huge loss for the players," Sundin said, "whether it's on your contract or just on your career."

Think about all the other future Hall of Famers that were affected. Now think about what isn't happening this season and how the pattern is continuing. Especially combined with 2004-05, think about the numbers that aren't being amassed. Think about how all this will affect the Hall of Fame debates of the future.

"At the end of the day, it's not always statistics, because there are other important factors that go into considering Hall of Fame caliber people," said Pat Quinn, co-chair of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "But you're right."

[Sam McCaig: Who's next in line for Hall of Fame?]

"It's going to affect the numbers, because it's two times in 10 years, right?" Oates said. "For sure, the numbers will be different. I don't know if they'll put an asterisk on that or not, but the numbers will be different."

Maybe the NHL thinks this puts pressure on the players, because they can play only so long and cannot afford to sit out too long. But this should put pressure on both sides.

Do you know what the "Spirit of Hockey" is? It is the skill, the character and the competition the fans love. It is also the name of the store at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If the NHL wants to keep selling the lore of the game, it can't keep messing with the game that creates the lore.

Both sides have to listen to Ted Lindsay, the man who helped build the NHLPA but isn't simply backing the union in this dispute. He talked about how his generation carried hockey through the 1940s and '50s and into the '60s, and he talked about how this generation must carry it through the 2010s and '20s and into the '30s.

"I worry about my game," said the 87-year-old Hall of Famer as he walked down the red carpet. "It's a shame. I can't believe you can't sit two people, four people or six people – whatever it is – to discuss things, make a decision.

"If they go another month, do we lose the whole year? You've got a lot of fans, saying, 'Who needs this kind of aggravation? I love the game, but do I need this aggravation?'

"And that's what the players, that's what the owners, have to think about."