LARRY LAGE,AP Hockey Writer
WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) — Kevin Westgarth had the best game of his career with NHL players on the ice.
The problem was, the game didn’t count.
Westgarth was one of 36 locked-out players relegated to being in a charity event at the WFCU Centre — less than 10 miles from Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings.
The Los Angeles Kings forward scored four times to help his team win 17-11 Saturday night, two days after labor talks fell apart.
“I have to give credit to great teammates, they put the puck on my stick and it ended up in the net,” said Westgarth, who has only one goal in 90 NHL games over three seasons. “We’re all happy to be back playing.”
They just wish they were playing in NHL games.
And, those don’t seem to be happening any time soon — if at all this season.
The players, led by union chief Donald Fehr, insist they were close to agreeing to a collective bargaining agreement when talks suddenly and stunningly broke off Thursday night.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, meanwhile, has vehemently said the two sides are still very far apart.
It’s anyone’s guess when the next round of talks will begin that might save a season that has already wiped out 422 games through Dec. 14 along with the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Michigan Stadium and the All-Star game on Jan. 27 in Ohio.
Westgarth, a member of the union negotiating team, said it was obvious to him that progress was made during recent talks until the owners walked away.
“It’s a shame things turned out the way they did,” he said. “At this point, though, nothing surprises me. They get everybody’s expectations up and then dash them. It’s unfortunate. It’s a shame we’re not playing this game at the Joe or anywhere else in the NHL.”
Bettman has said the league won’t consider a season that would last fewer than 48 games — the same length it had after the 1994-95 lockout — and that leaves about a month to reach an agreement.
The NHL is in danger of losing a second full season in seven years. The lockout that forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season marked the first time a North American professional sports league had a full campaign wiped out by a labor dispute. The previous agreement expired this September, leading to another lockout being imposed on Sept. 16.
For NHL players who haven’t taken their talents to Europe, they’ve skated together in small groups and have gotten together for exhibition games.
Detroit Red Wings forward Dan Cleary, one of the players who helped to set up the latest event, was happy with the game that started sloppy and the solid turnout.
The event called “Rock The Lockout” drew about 4,500 fans and raised money for SPARKLES From Above, a nonprofit organization that helps children diagnosed with cancer.
Cleary said he wanted to have stars such as Sidney Crosby play, but it would’ve cost too much money — $100,000 — to insure his 12-year, $104-plus million contract to get the Pittsburgh Penguins center on the ice.
“We would have better players, but they make too much money,” Cleary said. “We can’t insure them.”
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