At a hockey rink at the University of British Columbia on Monday morning, it looked a lot like a Vancouver Canucks practice. Most of the team was there, led by the Sedins, and presumed starting goaltender Cory Schneider.
Perhaps onetime Canucks and current Los Angeles Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell didn’t quite fit in, but the off-season resident of Vancouver skated with his former teammates, many of them still friends.
The practice was spirited, a typical gathering of Canucks ahead of the preseason (without coaching staff), but this is a different sort of September. And while opinions ranged, the Canucks didn’t sound terribly optimistic about the short-term fate of hockey, as the owners prepare to lock out players this weekend.
“I’m like anyone else: We’re too far apart right now to really be optimistic,” star scorer Daniel Sedin said after practice. “But you never know, there’s four, five days to get things started. We’ll see what happens.”
Asked whether it is possible the gap between the union and owners could close if both sides yield ground, Sedin remained pragmatic.
“That’s going to be talked [about] this coming week. We’ve got a meeting on Wednesday in New York. We’ll see what comes out from that meeting. Like I said, where we’re at right now, we’re not even close.”
A smaller group of Canucks has practised this month at UBC. The gathering Monday was the largest so far, and the first appearance by the Sedin brothers and Schneider. While several players spoke with reporters, others did not, including Henrik Sedin, who said he would make comments on Tuesday.
The Canucks have decided to send along just a handful to the large union meeting of 200-plus NHLers in New York on Wednesday. Among them will be Schneider and Manny Malhotra, the two Canucks on the union’s 31-man bargaining committee.
Most other Canucks will participate on Wednesday in an annual charity golf tournament that raises money for the team’s Canucks for Kids Fund. Other players, such as those with the Calgary Flames, are boycotting similar fund-raising events this week, in part to attend the meeting in New York.
In Vancouver, the team – many veteran players, the management of president Mike Gillis, and others, and the ownership of Francesco Aquilini – is unusually close, despite Gary Bettman and NHL owners asking the workers for a major salary reduction.
Former starting goaltender Roberto Luongo is expected to be among the golfers, though it is unclear whether he will skate with his teammates this week. He is expected to arrive in Vancouver on Tuesday.
Schneider, the goaltender who was handed the Canucks’ starting job in Game 3 of the first-round series against the Kings last April, said he and Luongo remain friends and spoke through the summer. The 26-year-old signed a $12-million (U.S.), three-year deal in late June. He said the roster situation – with Luongo on the trading block – hasn’t caused undue stress and noted the team wasn’t going to rush a trade.
“No stress,” Schneider said. “I’m not stressed. It’s not something that they’re just going to do on a whim, or that they’re going to solve easily.”
Asked whether he is the Canucks official starting goaltender, Schneider said: “I’m going to play like I am.”
On collective bargaining, Schneider, Daniel Sedin and other Canucks indicated there is strong solidarity among players, especially compared with the lost season of 2004-05. Schneider hinted the union will poke away at solidarity among the owners of the 30 NHL teams.
“Perhaps this week will be a telling week, if we can reach out to some of the owners who we haven’t heard from, or haven’t been able to get in contact with throughout this process, and see what their feelings and opinions are,” Schneider said.
NHL team owners are to meet on Thursday in New York.
While Schneider wasn’t exactly optimistic in general, he noted several times that a deal could occur quickly, even if the gap between the two sides is large.
“Things happen very quickly sometimes. And all it takes is one phone call, and that could be it. Again, I know there is, you know, a bit of a divide yet to be overcome, but I think both sides want to get something done, I don’t think anybody wants to miss hockey, the owners or players. We’ll see what happens this week.”
Malhotra described the Sept. 15 deadline for a deal as “completely made up” and said it is the owners who have to make a move, and that the question of whether hockey will be played in October rests with the owners.
“There’s nothing that says we have to shut things down,” Malhotra said. “As you can see by the turnout [on Monday at UBC], the guys are ready and eager to play right now.
“I think it’s entirely up to what the owners feel like doing in the next couple weeks. But as we have said in the past, we feel our proposal was incredibly meaningful, and took into consideration all the points that they wanted to deal with, so hopefully they’ll take that into consideration.”