NEW YORK ? Three days after an overnight marathon bargaining session between the NHL and its players finally ended with the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the league's Board of Governors unanimously gave its stamp of approval to the deal on Wednesday afternoon. Pending ratification of the agreement by the players, who will vote electronically on Friday and Saturday and need a simple majority to pass it, the NHL may be back playing games as soon as January 19, finally ending its senselessly long lockout with a 48-game season.
"This is a day to look forward," Commissioner Gary Bettman said, trying to sidestep the inevitable wonder over what took this day so long to arrive.
It was also a day to apologize. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the Chairman of the Board; general managers, and Bettman himself offered their contrition about the painful process, asking for the forgiveness of fans wiho understandably threw up their hands as the league underwent its third work stoppage in 18 years. It's a lot to ask.
"To the players who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally, and most importantly, to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I am sorry," Bettman said. "I know that an explanation or an apology won't erase the hard feelings that have built up over the last few months, but I owe you an apology nonetheless."
Bettman indicated that the league will roll out campaigns to show its appreciation to its fans, to be announced later, but how much will it take to get the people to forgive and forget -- again? He said on Wednesday he believed it was important to turn the page, to look forward as quickly as possible. Of course he would, because all the lockout has left behind is a mess. There is a deal, yes, but it took four months and a federal mediator's intervention to get done. There is hope that there will be stability going forward, but there is always hope. There was hope on June 29 when the two sides first met. There was hope in September when the CBA expired, hope in December when players and owners met face-to-face. There's always hope, however much it might fade. But then there is reality.
The term of the new CBA is 10 years with a mutual opt-out after Year 8. For context, the league operated under the last agreement for seven seasons. Is there another one of these labor messes in the not-so-distant future? If we all forgive and forget, the likelihood is good.
Fans are now left to celebrate what will be a shortened season, one that will likely do wonders to win them back. "As I remember [the shortened '94-'95 season], it was really fun," Nashville Predators GM David Poile recalled. "It was energized; it was stressful. Well, it's always stressful, but to use a line you'll hear all the time now, every game really was a playoff type of game.... It's going to be different. It's going to be a little unpredictable."
The deal hadn't even been ratified before the unpredictability of the season struck. On Wednesday morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs relieved Brian Burke of his duties as general manager and replaced him with his longtime assistant GM and friend Dave Nonis. The move was shocking, particularly in its timing. Upending the head of an organization just days before training camps are expected to open and a little more than a week before the season starts is a head-scratching move.
Much has been and will be written about the reasons why Burke is now relegated to a role as senior adviser. His "leadership style," one that is sometimes brash, always honest and very direct, reportedly rubbed his team's new owners the wrong way. But those very qualities make him one of the most respected executives-- not only in hockey, but in professional sports. He doesn't buckle under pressure, which is admirable to all those but the ones applying the pressure.
Burke's tenure in Toronto wasn't without misstep, of course. He promised a truculent team; he has a pair of heavy-hitters. He promised the playoffs; in four years, the Leafs have failed to make the top 8. He traded for Phil Kessel, who is a very fine player but in many minds doesn't live up to the two first-round picks that Burke surrendered, and he signed defenseman Mike Komisarek, who has been less fine and hasn't lived up to the $4.5 million he's being paid. He also brought in Dion Phaneuf, who has grown into a fine captain, and drafted a cadre of youngsters who have helped their farm team, the Marlies, to the second best record in the AHL.
The legacy of Burke will be determined in years to come, but the decision to release him now seems like a rash one. Especially on the eve of a shortened season, one that could bring all kinds of surprise contenders, it doesn't make much sense. But then again, sense in the NHL? Who knows when that day will ever come?