Their images were stripped from team websites.
Their jerseys and socks were taken away.
And when the NHL lockout came into effect at midnight Sunday morning, the league’s players – superstars and pluggers alike – were quite literally shut out of team facilities across North America.
The parking lot at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice rink was just one example, as rather than the usual fancy sports cars left in their reserved spots by millionaire athletes on the way to practice, it was filled with minivans and children hauling hockey bags.
Inside, the one ice sheet usually reserved for the pros was deserted, with the lights off and the dressing room locked up even as kids were playing everywhere else. Hockey, in other words, went on. Even if the NHL may not.
“We had to pack our bags and sneak out one day to still have our gear,” St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said. “So we can’t go to the rink anymore. We’re not supposed to have contact with the coaches and management. All these things are pretty foreign when they’ve been such a constant in your life. Now it’s not there and you’re kind of out on your own.”
“Everyone tries to prepare beforehand,” Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek said. “Instead of trying to crawl through a window to get an extra stick or two.”
This was Day 1 of the league’s fourth labour stoppage in the past 20 years, an ignominious record that has players frustrated, owners crying poor and fans up in arms that they have to do this all over again after the sport missed a full season in 2004-05.
No games have been cancelled to this point, but training camps are scheduled to open on Friday and few are optimistic that deadline will be met.
The next key deadline will come Oct. 11 when the regular season is to open with four games, including two all-Canadian matchups in Calgary and Montreal.
The league and NHL Players’ Association didn’t negotiate over the weekend, even as the expiring of their collective agreement loomed late Saturday, and no meetings have been scheduled for the coming week.
While the animosity between the two sides is not believed to be as high as it was eight years ago when they failed to meet for months after the lockout began, that appeared to ramp up on Sunday when players took to Twitter to take shots at league commissioner Gary Bettman.
“Bettman should be the commissioner of a different sport ... like knitting,” Joe Morrow, one of the Pittsburgh Penguins top prospects, wrote in a message he would later delete. “What a joke. Stop ruining hockey.”
“Just wanted to send out big congrats to [Gary] Bettman on his third consecutive work stoppage,” Leafs veteran John-Michael Liles added. “Impressive stats for someone [with] no athletic skill.”
Unlike the previous lockout when the confrontation was over a salary cap, there is no single issue at the heart of the dispute beyond simply the league’s desire to lower the players’ share of revenues.
Under the previous agreement, players received 57 per cent of hockey-related revenue, a figure that rose to about $1.87-billion last season. The league would like to see that number cut to less than 50 per cent – a change that would amount to as much as $400-million less a season over the life of their proposed six-year deal.
To date, the players have offered to cut their share over time, with the latest proposal putting it between roughly 52 to 54 per cent provided league revenues continue to grow at a rate of 7 per cent a season.
Because the players were perceived to “lose” the last labour war – which resulted in the imposition of the cap – they are now adamant they should not have to make major concessions again.
“The system that is supposedly broken was designed by the NHL owners and the league itself,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We did our part in ’04-’05. The players that lost that season and maybe didn’t play another NHL game had to sacrifice that.”
So with negotiations at a standstill, both sides took to the public relations front on Sunday. The league released “a message to our fans” that was posted on every team’s website and stated they were focused on “getting the puck dropped as soon as possible.”
Individual teams also issued instructions to their season ticket holders as to how they could receive refunds once games are missed, with the Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets among others offering interest on the cash as long as it stayed with the club.
The players’ union, meanwhile, posted a lengthy YouTube video with explanations from some of its biggest stars – including Penguins captain Sidney Crosby – for the current situation.
Several said they wanted to continue playing under the previous agreement, something the league has made clear it has no interest in doing. “As players, we want to play,” Crosby said, “but we also know what’s right and what’s fair.”
In the meantime, players have already begun to rent their own ice and find gyms to train at, either in their NHL cities or their hometowns. Without the benefit of coaches to guide them, they’ll be doing little more than informal drills and scrimmages to stay in shape – the kind of workouts that will become tedious after a few weeks.
While players realize there remains time to get a deal done before any games are missed, most seem to be preparing for the long haul. “Guys are going to do what they need to do to stay in shape and be ready,” Komisarek said. “Everyone’s hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. It’s just incredibly disappointing and sad. It’s a sad day.”