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Pens' star talks NHL at Curve game

August 28, 2012
By John Hartsock ( , The Altoona Mirror

A hat trick during a hockey game often elicits cheers, approval and all-around good will.

The long-time custom of fans tossing their head wear on to the ice to salute players who have scored three goals in a game is a well-established and well-received ritual.

But as the start of the 2012-13 National Hockey League season approaches, the NHL is seeking to avoid a hat trick of a much different and onerous kind - its third labor stoppage in less than 20 years.

Article Photos

Mirror photos by Gary M.?Baranec
Ice hockey fan Cole Yeckley, 12 of Carrolltown gets an autograph from the Penguins’?James Neal at Blair County?Ballpark Monday night.

There's a September 15 deadline on the table for negotiations between the players and owners in which the sticking points are more numerous than penalty minutes doled out during a bench-clearing free-for-all.

Free agency, revenue sharing, contract limits and waiver rules are among the issues being disputed. A major snafu between the players and owners is hockey-related revenues. The players currently make 57 percent on such revenues. The owners are offering 43 percent.

Pittsburgh Penguin right winger James Neal, 24 - who made a public appearance Monday at Peoples Natural Gas Field courtesy of the Altoona Trackers, Advanced Chiropractic, WTAJ-TV, and S&T Bank - is coming off a 40-goal season last year, and doesn't want to miss any playing time.

"From the players' standpoint, we're doing everything we normally do to prepare for the season,'' the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Neal said. "It's kind of a weird feeling with all the talk going around right now. Hopefully, we can get things done and we can play. I know the players are all behind each other, and everybody's on board, and wants to get the season started.''

The NHL lost its entire season to a work stoppage just eight years ago, in 2004, and also went out on strike for 48 games 10 years before that, in 1994.

Labor impasses have been common in all four major sports. Just last winter, a lockout prevented the National Basketball Association from starting its season until Christmas Day. Major League Baseball had a work stoppage in 1994 that ended that season in mid-August and shut down the playoffs and World Series. The National Football League strike in 1987 lasted 24 days, badly diluting the product that year as replacement players were brought in to attempt to fill some of the void left by accomplished veterans.

"Hockey is in a good place right now,'' Neal said Monday. "We want to keep it that way.''

The players themselves may not have the strongest say in what ultimately transpires, though, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has vowed that the league plans to lock out the players if a new collective bargaining agreement can not be reached by Sept. 15.

"Once we get back to Pittsburgh in September and start to get focused on the season, I'm sure a little worry will set in [if things aren't resolved],'' Neal said.

Neal, who spends his offseasons in Toronto, is coming off a productive individual campaign in 2011-12, his first full season with the Penguins. The former Dallas Star scored a career-high 40 goals and added 41 assists while playing on a line centered by Evgeni Malkin, with Chris Kunitz on the left wing.

"We definitely felt comfortable with each other,'' Neal said. "I just tried to get the puck to the net as often as possible, because good things were happening.''

Last season ended in disappointment for the Penguins, who suffered a first-round playoff ouster at the hands of the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers. With superstar center Sydney Crosby healthy and signed to a mega-year contract, many believed the Penguins had the firepower to make a run for the Stanley Cup this past spring.

"We have the players, we just need to execute,'' Neal said. "It was disappointing the way last season ended against Philly. The only thing we can do is put that behind us. Everybody has had a great offseason and is getting ready for a fresh start.''

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