By Stu Hackel
Yes, it's wonderful imagery, but don't expect a mob of angry professional hockey players to pick up torches, pitchforks, clubs and ax handles, march to whatever hotel the NHL Board of Governors gathers in on Thursday and demand they be allowed to report to training camp. Still, the twin meetings scheduled for this week in New York City could feel like the storm before the calm.
The troops from both sides of the NHL's class war are set to mass in the Big Apple. Around 300 players will arrive for Wednesday and Thursday discussions while a parallel meeting of the NHL owners convenes on Thursday. Part strategy sessions, part pep rallies, they'll all be talking about the expiring CBA, why the stance they've taken is right for them, perhaps come up with some last-minute directions to their negotiators, and provide some sense of what to expect when the clock strikes midnight on Sunday morning...after which a whole lot of nothing could break out. At least in the near term.
Both Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA leader Don Fehr will undoubtedly impart their messages to the assembled cameras and microphones. We can expect that some players will also give their views, although the owners and those in management will likely continue to remain silent and let the commissioner do their talking for them, as the Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke explained in Toronto on Monday (video). "The league's doing all the talking about the collective bargaining agreement," Burke told reporters at the Leafs' annual charity golf outing. "Obviously, I've been in on a bunch of the meetings, but not the last week or so. And I'll let the league comment on it. I wish I could say more. I mean, you guys know me: 'No comment' is not something that comes out of these lips easily."
The players have no such gag order upon them and they continue to be available for comment. Sometimes they even take center stage, as Josh Gorges and Mathieu Darche did on Monday, speaking about the NHLPA's legal challenges to the potential lockout (although in that instance, it might have been beneficial for the PA to include one of their lawyers on the conference call to address some of the media's questions).
By the way, the Alberta Labour Relations Board cancelled the hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning on the NHLPA's challenge to the legality of a lockout by ownership in that province when the NHL apparently withdrew its claim against the union's filing. That could pave the way for the Flames and Oilers players to report to training camp as scheduled regardless of what happens in the 28 other NHL cities, setting up a bizarre situation in which the players on these teams will be paid once the regular season is scheduled to begin, even if they have no games to play.
“We are pleased that the league has decided to withdraw its application (for a lockout vote in Alberta),” Don Zavelo, NHLPA general counsel told Scott Cruickshank of The Calgary Herald , said. “We believe they can no longer claim that their threatened lockout is one that would be permitted under the laws of Alberta.”
Bill Daly had called the NHLPA tactic a joke, adding that he wished the players were using their time and energy to negotiate a deal instead. "At this stage of the bargaining, I wouldn't be treating anything as a joke," Fehr told Canadian Press. "The proceeding in Alberta is a proceeding that they instituted and then abandoned."
Gorges and Darche weren't the only players who were talking on Monday. On the other coast, the Canucks' Daniel Sedin told Iain MacIntyre of The Vancouver Sun that the players are far more unified this time than they were when they sacrificed an entire season in 2004-05. “I think every player is on board," Sedin said. "They’re more involved. We had meetings in Europe, conference calls. It’s on a totally different level (than 2004). Everyone knows what’s going on and what’s at stake and we’re prepared for everything right now. It’s a different feeling.”
Manny Malhotra, one of the Canucks’ union representatives, added, “From a union standpoint, we’re far more unified, far more educated this time.
“It’s frustrating for us, especially the guys who did go through it last time. Understanding the economics, understanding giving back 24 per cent of your contract ... we’ve lived with the system that they created, that they said they needed to have a healthy 30-team league. They got what they needed, and now they’re saying they need even more money. We made huge concessions last time. There’s no need to go back to that.
“Seven years later, they’re in a tough predicament and they need more money? You have to question whether it is the system.”
The owners don't see it that way, of course. They say they don't really have a healthy 30-team league, that the imbalance the current system created between high revenue teams and struggling franchises requires adjustments, with the major one being that players' salaries must come down. If you have some time, you might want to look over the new blog post from TSN's Bob McKenzie, who has emerged from his summer off and tried distilling each side's position in something just short of 3,900 words. It's not light reading, but it's got lots of good information.
"I've spent the better part of my first week back from vacation trying to get a handle on the NHL-NHL Players' Association labor negotiations, or lack thereof, and in the immortal words of Roberto Duran, 'No mas,'" McKenzie writes. "My head is spinning, and if you've seen my noggin, you know that's no small feat. And to think we're likely just taking the first few steps this week towards walking through what is likely to be a very long, dark tunnel."
McKenzie is not the only one muttering "No mas." Disillusioned fans can't believe that we're about to go through the tunnel again. One of them, Dave Gottlieb, vowed in his "Fan's Manifesto" that he directed to Bettman, the owners and the union last week, "It is fair to say that in the past nearly quarter of a century, I’ve spent, contributed and invested somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 directly into the NHL: through tickets, money spent in arenas, on TV services to watch games, the NHL Center Ice package, merchandise....But no more. Not if you all—adults, businessmen, professionals—can’t find a way to conduct full-seasons of NHL hockey.
"You present a lockout as the only viable negotiating stance and tactic rather than seeking true solutions for your problems in an adult, sane and professional manner. You present the lockout as the only weapon you see—and a nuclear one—because you won’t stand on the positives that have happened over the past generation in growing the league, and you won’t figure out how to continue building and growing those positives for the future. The lockout represents a choice to only use the negative to achieve goals. If this is the prevailing wisdom and if you are going to push the nuclear button on playing a full season, then I will push my nuclear button: return my season tickets to the Rangers, no longer spend a dime on the NHL, discontinue my NHL Center Ice Service, dump the GameCenter apps from my electronic devices. I will simply erase the NHL from my present and future."
"It's a part of pro sports," Brian Burke told reporters on Monday when asked what he'd say to fans about the possibility of a lockout. "The players are represented by a Players Association, they have to come to an agreement with the league in question, that's been done successfully in some cases, it's been unsuccessful in others. There's been work stoppages in all the sports. Hopefully something will get done here. But as far as what I'd say to the fans is that I know it's hard for fans to understand sometimes how the parties can't agree on these things but, again, it's happened in every sport, they've had work stoppages. And if one is going to happen here -- and I wouldn't predict that it is -- but if one is, then it's unfortunate, but it's part of the process."
It's not a process in which David Gottlieb is interested any longer. "No doubt, many feel just like Gottlieb right now," Andrew Gross of The Bergen Record wrote after reading the Manifesto. "And for those who do, know this: the NHL is counting on your blind loyalty. The league is assuming it can lure you back as soon as it opens its doors again."
On the website NoHockeyLockout.com, there's news of three fan protests planned for Saturday, one in New York, one in Montreal and one in Boston. No, the players won't be picking up torches, pitchforks, clubs and ax handles this week. Don't know what the fans might do.