By Stu Hackel
No one should be terribly surprised that mediation in the NHL's CBA dispute has failed (and if you are legally minded, you might want to see why it didn't work by reading Eric Macramalla's CBS.com blog post here). Winnipeg Free Press writer Mike McIntyre tweeted earlier in the week, "If mediation doesn't work, will the NHL and NHLPA try meditation? Or medication?"
Well, Gary Bettman had an idea: Why not have the players and owners meet face-to-face without the negotiators or staff around?
On the surface, it sure sounded like a good idea. Below the surface, maybe it wasn't so good.
My initial thought was of Gordie Howe, one of the game's all-time greatest players who, in the pre-agents Original Six era, negotiated his first signing bonus: a Red Wings jacket. Later in his career, Gordie would walk into the offices of the owner (or the Norris family's representative, the GM) to hammer out his contract all by himself. After friendly chit chat, they'd get down to business and Gordie would end up thinking he had a made a good deal. Sometime in the mid-60s, he learned he was being fleeced by the Wings, that he was making $40,000 and Bob Baun, a very good, hard checking Maple Leafs defenseman (but not a superstar like Gordie) was making something like $75,000.
Pierre McGuire must have been thinking along the same lines when he said over Team 1200's "Three Guys In The Morning Show" from Ottawa early on Friday (audio), "I know the NHL would be all for that, I'm not sure the NHLPA would be all for that. I can't see them putting their players into a situation with really refined, very intelligent businessmen whereas these players, while they might have a certain grasp of the issues, don't have the kind of experience to do that kind of deal."
So my first impression was to wonder if this is just grandstanding on the part of the owners.
Then I listened to Bob McKenzie's segment on TSN 620 "Morning Show" and found merit in his perspective, namely that it depends on which owners are in the room; if it's the same four or five hardliners who have represented all of ownership -- Boston's Jeremy Jacobs, Washington's Ted Leonsis, Calgary's Murray Edwards and Minnesota's Craig Leipold, with Toronto's GM Brian Burke also participating a few times -- it won't be worth the effort (which echoed a Tweet I saw Thursday night from agent Allan Walsh). But if some of the more moderate owners who have yet to participate (McKenzie named Montreal's Geoff Molson and Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle as two of them) sat across the table, that might change the chemistry. McKenzie also brought up that there are, in fact, some pretty intelligent players who are well-educated and wouldn't necessarily be overwhelmed by the owner sharpies. The thing to do, he suggested, would be for the players to just sit in the room and listen to what the moderate owners had to say ("with duct tape over their mouths," McKenzie sort of joked -- sort of) and they could bring the message back to the NHLPA's leaders for them to see if anything was worth pursuing.
Well, that sounded pretty good until I thought about a few of the things the owners had previously done in these talks along the lines of going around Don Fehr and directly to the players while trying to divide them from their leadership. Isn't this suggestion by Bettman another such tactic? Former NHLPA staff member, ex-Blackhawk Steve Larmer tweeted, "If Gary wants just Owners and players to meet has he decertified the union all by himself?"
Then I came across a story in which the Red Wings' Dan Cleary, who has been Detroit's most active player in the negotiations, told Ansar Khan of the Michigan Booth Newspapers, “We're talking about that. Why not? Get some players in there, some different owners. They can get a feel of what we're thinking, we can get a feel of what they're thinking. I won't know what to make of it until it happens, but it can't hurt. Maybe we could agree on a few things and take it to leadership. It's something different. I think it's got some traction.''
Now, what I think, of course, doesn't matter at all, but if that's the consensus among the players, it seems as if it's worth as much of a shot as mediation. The lockout railroad is running out of track and where it appears to be headed at the end of the line -- perhaps decertification and the judicial system if you buy into the scenario laid out by Sportsnet's John Shannon -- is not a pleasant destination. Then we will need meditation and/or medication.
The battle continues: Without NHL programming, NBC Sports Network aims to keep hockey fans interested by adding to its slate of college games. This weekend, it will show a Friday doubleheader with Boston College at Boston University followed by Wisconsin at Denver, and on Saturday the back end of the BC-BU home-and-home series.
BC's Eagles have won 10 in a row and are ranked Number 1 in the country while the arch-rival Terriers are 8-4 but only 4-3 in November. A main storyline in the resumption of the BC-BU Battle of Commonwealth Ave. is that BC's Jerry York, who has led the Eagles to the NCAA Frozen Four title four times, is only one victory shy of tying Ron Mason's 924 wins as the most coaching victories in NCAA history.
As for players to watch, BC's sophomore left wing Johnny Gaudreau, a Flames draft choice, has everyone talking after he picked up five points last weekend in a 6-3 win over Dartmouth. He's BC's top scorer with nine goals and 10 assists. Pierre McGuire, who will be on the broadcast crew, calls Gaudreau a "special player" and likens him to Marty St. Louis. Listed at 5-foot-8, 153 pounds (he might be a little shorter and a little heavier), the southern New Jersey native has "off-the-charts hockey instincts," according to McGuire. With very good hands, excellent creativity and vision, plus a game awareness that McGuire ranks among the very best in hockey at any level, Gaudreau only needs to improve his skating and strength to be a bonafide NHLer.
The Wisconsin-Denver game features two teams going in opposite directions. The Pioneers are at the top of the WCHA and ranked fifth in the country after starting the season by winning nine of 10 before dropping two last weekend. The Badgers have disappointed at 1-7-2.
One reason for optimism among Mike Eaves' Badger club is the return on Friday night of freshman forward Nic Kerdiles, a second-round draft pick by the Anaheim Ducks last June out of Irvine, CA. He was suspended for the first 10 games of the season by the NCAA for violating their amateur rules, specifically benefiting from contact with a professional player agent. Last season, Kerdiles led the US National Team Development Program's Under-18 squad with 22 goals, 26 assists and 48 points in 54 games and had two goals and three assists for Team USA in the final of the IIHF U-18 World Championships.
"I hope he doesn't expect to lead us out to the Promised Land himself," Eaves told The Wisconsin State Journal. "It's not fair to expect that of one guy." Still, Eaves has to be happy he's got a prized player dressing for the Badgers on Friday night.
My friend "Digger" Dave: It was shocking to learn of the death this week of David Courtney, the popular Southern California public address announcer, whose voice was familiar to fans of the Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Clippers and, especially, the Kings.
I met Dave around 25 years ago when he was the Kings' PR Director and I worked for the NHL as director of broadcasting, publishing and video. Always smiling and easygoing, he had been with the club since he was a teenager, an unpaid "intern" before there really were such things. In fact, here's something not too many people know: Along with fellow teenaged volunteer Bob Borgen (who years later became the Kings' TV producer), Courtney created the format for player bios in the Kings team media guides that eventually became the standard for all NHL teams, detailing what a player had done the previous season and during his career. Before that, player bios were little more than a few written lines, if that. David did those things in large part because of how much he loved the sport and how much he loved the Kings.
Years later, in 1988, Dave accompanied the league staff as one of three guest public relations representatives during the Stanley Cup Final. It was a great group that year and we all formed a special bond that never broke. We nicknamed him"Digger" that spring -- the reasons for which I've long since forgotten -- and we still called him that all these years later. Traveling together on endless fights between Boston and Edmonton, dining out in exotic Alberta steakhouses, running around poolside in the hotels between games, we all got to know each other better and shared a lot of laughs. A lot. It was one of those "best days of your life" times, the kind you think will never end and the people you share it with, like Dave, always mean something special to you.
The 1988 postseason had already been crazy with the Devils making their playoff debut and going to the semifinal round against the Bruins, in which the NHL referees walked out to protest Jim Schoenfeld being allowed to coach in Game 4 after his famous "have another donut" run-in with referee Don Koharski. The Cup final would be no less crazy, with Boston Garden's lights going out with the score tied 3-3 in the second period of Game 4. After the building emptied, someone snapped a grainy picture of our traveling group lined up on the ice in the darkened Garden. Having to do your job through unusual and unprecedented events brings you even closer to your co-workers, so after the Oilers won the series a few days later in Edmonton, we all took another photo of us bunched around the Stanley Cup, as if we had won it ourselves. It's one of my very favorite pictures, including people I have stayed friends with for over 25 years -- and sadly, I lost my prints of both when I moved about 10 years later. But to this day, I carry the image in my head of Digger Dave with a big smile as we all gathered around the Cup late that May night and watched as the Oilers, their families and friends celebrated another championship. You got the unmistakable feeling that Digger would like to have that experience with the Kings.
Well, he finally got it. Time and space and distance limited much of our contact in recent years to Facebook exchanges, but nothing I've seen on that social network made me happier than all his postings of the Kings' Stanley Cup. I wasn't alone. "I'm glad that his last call with the Kings was to announce them as the Stanley Cup Champions," Borgen wrote me in an email on Thursday.
I found out Dave passed away in an email on Thursday from one of the guys on that 1988 trip through the Cup finals. The subject line just read "Digger." When you get an email with only someone's name in the subject line, it is almost always very bad news.
Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times wrote Friday in her column on Dave, "The tragedy of his death Thursday from a pulmonary embolism isn't limited to the fact that 56 is too young to die. Or that he had enjoyed merely two years of married life with Janet Fisher, whom he wed in a ceremony at Lake Mission Viejo. That, too, is unspeakably sad. It is also beyond heartbreaking that although he got to see the Kings win the Cup, the lockout imposed by the NHL on Sept. 15 prevented him from becoming the voice of the Kings' banner-raising ceremony. Try quantifying that loss in millions or billions of hockey-related revenues. It can't be done."
No it can't.
So long, Digger.