Picture this: It’s the Hockey Hall of Fame luncheon this past Monday and there’s an empty seat at the presenter’s table between me and selection committee co-chair Pat Quinn. It was supposed to be NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s place and believe me, the temptation to channel my inner Clint Eastwood and start lecturing that empty chair about the futility and madness of the lockout was almost too much to bear.
Bettman’s absence was noteworthy because even back in 2004, when the NHL last ground to a halt because of a lockout, he was far more visible at Hall Of Fame ceremonies than he was this time around. Some suggested Bettman kept a lower profile because he has become so much more of a personal lightning rod during this, the third lockout under his reign as NHL commissioner, and thus didn’t want his presence to overshadow the moment for inductees Pavel Bure, Adam Oates, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin.
Fair enough. That night, Bettman showed up to give a short and perfunctory speech, made a veiled reference to the lockout and then disappeared. He wasn’t at the preliminary parties; he didn’t take his usual seat in the auditorium; and he didn’t stick around for all the visiting and glad-handing that goes on afterward.
That’s the thing about the hockey world when they gather for an event such as this. They are inveterate gossips. It’s really one of the great pleasures of the business, a sort of unofficial industry-wide convention that drops ex-players, agents, owners, labour leaders and NHL brass into one small corridor of downtown Toronto for a 72-hour period.
There are accidental meetings with old friends in the to-ing and fro-ing through hotel lobbies, along with quick catch-ups over coffee or stronger beverages. All the old stories are retold, but this year, every conversation eventually drifted back to the elephant in the room, namely, when might the lockout end?
Over on Puck Daddy this week, Greg Wyshynski called this the “nobody knows anything” portion of the labour negotiations and he has that pretty well right. Nobody does know anything and they know even less today, after Bettman determined that a two-week break in the negotiations would act as a sort of cooling off period, in which the two warring sides could come up with fresh ideas to end the stalemate.
Good luck with that.
Overall, even among parties that have a role in the negotiating game, there was a real uncertainty over what may happen next. Some, a few die-hard optimists, thought something might give in early December, the way it did in 2004, when the NHL players association offered a 24 per cent rollback that – for a time anyway – gave the negotiations a push forward.
Others, a larger class of pessimists, believe that things are so bad that the Hall of Fame could potentially reconvene next November to honour its class of 2013, without a single NHL game having been played in the interim.
Their logic is that if the season is ultimately lost – probably about a 50-50 proposition right now – then the NHL will not hurry back to the bargaining table, because the first two months of the season are the softest part of the revenue cycle anyway. The industry will be so badly damaged by a cancellation that even supposedly logical businessmen will then allow emotions to trump logic in the negotiating fray (if they haven’t already).
If or when that happens, when one side believes it needs the other to surrender unconditionally, then the casualty count will be high.
Today, on our website, there was a post by a reader who called himself A Business Professional who summed up in two paragraphs a conversation I had with a prominent, semi-retired NHL figure, who still has many close ties to the game (and is privy to the sort of conversations that haven’t spilled into the public domain because of Bettman’s gag order).
His view echoed thoughts that our reader posted:
“Rule number 1 is you never ever ever ever allow the fundamental process of a deal to be in the hands of lawyers and accountants. With respect to my several friends in these professions, they are what is known on a professional level as the necessary evils. Heartless and soulless. These people should only be called in once the framework of a deal is done. They put the legalities on paper and present the accounting fiscal challenges.The NHL and players now need the owners and builders and smart players to step to the plate with their passion and love of the game. A Geoff Molson and a Mario Lemieux along with some hard nosed smart passionate players. They need to tell the lawyers and accountants to literally take a hike and that they will be called back when needed.”