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Clock ticks on their careers

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Gerard Gallant's body clock says time is running out.

The Lightning left wing is 31, which isn't all that old if you're a finesse player who is protected on the ice by teammates. But Gallant isn't a finesse player. He has spent his 10 years in the NHL delivering and receiving bruising checks. He has taken a beating doing the dirty work in front of the net and in the corners.

And when his teammates needed help or an emotional lift, he was there with his fists. His face has weathered a decade of punches on their behalf.

Now, Gallant is taking another one on the chin, this time for the good of his NHL peers.

The union is fighting the owners over several issues in the labor negotiations, including the right to keep arbitration, more liberal free agency and no salary cap.

Those issues won't affect the veterans who will never sign another NHL contract. Those players are fighting a battle in which all they can do is lose.

Lose income they can never recoup; lose games in careers in which games are numbered.

"I know Gerard Gallant probably will have nothing to gain," Gallant said Monday after a pickup game with teammates. "My contract is up after next season and I don't know if I'll sign another one. But I'm a union guy and I back what they're doing 100 percent."

The Lightning's only other thirtysomething player, Denis Savard, also will gain little if anything from the union's fight. But the 33-year-old center understands why the union won't agree to the owners' proposal and supports its efforts.

The NHL lockout, now at Day 23, is hurting all players financially. And it's also affecting the development of young players like Chris Gratton and Roman Hamrlik at a crucial time. "But they won't fall behind because everybody is in the same boat," Lightning coach Terry Crisp said. "The young players will be around for years. Time is on their side. They're still full of vim and vigor."

"If I miss a year, it's okay," Hamrlik said. "I come back next year and I'm only 21."

But Gallant and Savard can't be so cavalier about missing a year, or even months, depending how long the lockout lasts.

"The ones a long layoff will affect the most are the older players," Crisp said. "Whether it's their legs or contracts or whatever. It's too bad. These are the guys who have served their time. Done their dues. And suddenly when they should be collecting, they could find themselves out of the game.

"If these guys miss a year, the guys who play in the minors will have a full year to get ready to move up and take their place in the NHL. Somebody will lose a job. Will it be the young kids? I don't think so. Will it be the top echelon? I don't think so. It's going to be the older guys, who are making the pretty good salary."

Crisp was referring to players around the league, not Gallant and Savard specifically.

But financially, Gallant could lose $525,000, his salary for this season. Savard could lose $600,000. It's money they have no chance of recouping by playing hockey.

Gallant, relegated to the fourth line last season, is likely to retire after next season, when his contract expires.

Savard, whose contract also is up after next season, said there is a possibility, if the lockout drags on all season, that he will forgo the last year and retire.

Do they feel cheated?

"Yes and no," Savard said. "It's tough to explain."

"I think everyone feels a little cheated," Gallant said. "I don't understand why we can't play while they work on (the labor agreement)."

Lightning defenseman Enrico Ciccone stands to lose $225,000 this season. But he's 24 and knows he likely will be able to recoup those losses in future contracts.

"We have to look ahead to the future," Ciccone said. "We know a lot of the older guys could say, "I have two years left, who cares (about the union)?' But they know what the guys did who came before them. I hope when I'm 28 or 29 or 30, I'll be in the front for guys to come after me."

Gallant said he appreciates what has been done by his peers, predecessors and union boss Bob Goodenow.

"He helped empower us in the league," Gallant said. "Salaries have tripled. When I started (1984 with Detroit), my goal was to make $200,000. That was a lot of money. I don't know whether it is right or wrong, all the big salaries. But the owners seem like they're willing to pay it. Maybe the time has come when it's out of hand. But I don't see it, when you see teams like Hartford, who say they are losing money, just signing two or three guys for more than a million.

"I never made that much. I'm making the most I've ever made. Maybe I should have made the most when I had my best seasons. But that's not how it works."

Gallant added: "It made me mad, me and a lot of the other guys, when they (the NHL owners) started the fight September 1 with all the drawbacks. It just seemed like they were playing hard right off the bat. It turned everybody sour.

"I know I'm probably not going to gain anything, but this is a fight for something I believe in. We're fighting for the rights of all the guys. And I'm one of the guys."