At an ice rink at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday, among the professional hockey players, there was a diplomat and an optimist.
The latter is likely a rare bird, these days, and the former spoke of solidarity and defiance in the quiet ways one would expect from a Swede.
The Vancouver Canucks started their informal practice earlier than usual Tuesday, and former teammate and, especially last April, rival Willie Mitchell of the 2011-12 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings missed a chance to skate.
Mitchell has been, perhaps incongruously, on the ice in recent days wearing a Kings helmet with his former teammates.
Outside a locker room, while most of the Canucks skated in a high-tempo practice, Mitchell expressed what few have said, or believe, these days.
In August, in an interview, he expressed confidence in a full 82-game season of hockey happening in 2012-13 despite his outright rejection of the owners’ original contract offer.
“I still think something will happen,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “I don’t think the league wants [a lockout], and I know for sure the players don’t want to do it. We want to play hockey.”
While optimistic, he gave no quarter to the owners’ current stance, and said, like other players, the union is far stronger than it was in 2004-05, when it fractured under what Mitchell politely described as “animosity” among the players.
“We ended up taking that we felt wasn’t the best deal,” he said of the last lockout. “Fortunately for us, credit to the players, and management and ownership, the game has grown. So, that’s a credit to everyone. Because the game has grown, salaries have risen, along with revenues. Fifty-seven per cent wasn’t just a pie-in-the-sky number for the league, it was a number they knew would work for them, as an ownership group to be profitable.”
League revenues are up 50 per cent in the past eight years to more than $3-billion (U.S.), yet the NHL claims it is losing money, and wants more concessions from its workers.
Mitchell says it is like any employer-employee situation anywhere.
“It’s the classic employer-wants-to-pay-employees-less,” said the veteran 35-year-old defenceman who is, off the ice, politically active around his hometown of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island.
“You see that in the real world, everywhere. They’re trying to help their bottom lines and us as players are trying to protect ourselves. Last time, personally, I missed a full year’s salary, I lost 24 per cent of my salary the next year to give [the owners] a system.”
Henrik Sedin is, first, a sportsman.
When he returned to the ice for the first time this week, he shook the hand of Mitchell, former teammate and key defenceman in L.A.’s first-round playoff defeat of the Canucks in April.
After practice, Sedin – Canucks captain and 2009-10 NHL MVP – was a Swedish diplomat.
Asked of facing the second lockout in his pro career, after giving up major ground last time, Sedin was spoke in non-evocative terms.
“Yeah, that’s the tough part,” he said in his first interview with reporters since returning to Vancouver. “We gave up a full year the last time around, and we gave up a lot, and the game is, we believe, in a really good spot right now, with a lot of fans watching.
“The game is good, the product is good. You would think that everyone would be happy about it – but we’re back to eight years ago. … [The owners] want to take us to before the last lockout, so that’s a little bothersome.”
Sedin’s most common refrain, as it often is in seasons past, was “we’ll see what happens.” But asked of whether he was willing to lose a season, as he and his twin brother turn 32 later this month, Sedin expressed solidarity.
“If the owners are staying where they are – this is not for us, this is for the whole league. It’s for the younger guys coming up, it’s for young guys in the league right now, it’s for everyone. You can’t be selfish in a situation like this.”