The Hockey Hall of Fame tried its best to get the spotlight focused squarely on its player inductions Monday night but the pall of yet another NHL lockout could not be swept under the red carpet on which Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Adam Oates and Pavel Bure strode into the ceremony.
“No I don’t think it’ll take away from it. I think if anything the focus is on our game in the historical sense of it,” said Pat Quinn, the co-chair of the Hall of Fame’s selection committee, although he sounded more hopeful than certain. “This is what we celebrate, is our history and the great people that have built this game.”
However, Quinn had to admit the lockout took the shine off what is usually an entire weekend of celebration. But thanks to the lockout, which hit its 58th day Monday, there was no traditional Hall of Fame game Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre.
“We’re out of work right now and it’s a shame. We should be playing,” Quinn said. “Part of this weekend has always been about an NHL game. It didn’t happen, but I don’t think it’ll affect what we’ve seen here [Monday night].”
However, the irony of celebrating a game that is continually disrupted by labour troubles – this is the NHL’s second lockout in seven years and third since Gary Bettman became commissioner in 1993 – wasn’t lost on Quinn or the dozens of hockey people gathered in Toronto.
“It’s always discouraging if we’re not following what we believe should be the order of things in our country,” Quinn said. “The order of things means Hockey Night in Canada. All of our children are playing this game across the country – that has to do with their heroes that are not there. The order’s out of whack. And when it’s out of whack, who likes it? I know I don’t.
“It’s not a nice situation. The last 10 years, if you think it’d be really good if I had a 12-year career, all of a sudden if you played in the last 10 or 12 years, it’s a 10-year career.”
There was a strong undercurrent of anger through Monday’s activities, as the latest breakdown in labour negotiations was considered.
Hall of Fame chairman Bill Hay let his emotion show in his opening remarks at a luncheon honouring The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor, this year’s winner of the Elmer Ferguson award for excellence in hockey writing, and Buffalo Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret, who won the Foster Hewitt award for broadcasting. Hay mentioned Bettman, who was not able to attend, and then bit off the words, “But I don’t have to introduce him,” his anger unmistakable.
As Hay spoke, less than a kilometre away at a sports business conference organized in part by Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, NHL Players’ Association special counsel Steve Fehr was part of a panel discussion. Burke, kept silent by a gag order placed on NHL owners and managers by Bettman, clearly did a slow burn as Fehr told the gathering the union and the NHL are “fairly close” to an agreement on revenue sharing and once there is a breakthrough in the chilly negotiations a new collective agreement can be put together quickly.
“I know it’s painful for you guys watching this but I’ve got to sit here,” Burke said of having to hold his tongue.
Both Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr declined to address the media at Monday night’s ceremony. Bettman’s annual address at the ceremony was rather wooden and his reception was polite with gusts to cool, especially during a reference to the lockout as "difficult times."
The only comment came from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly via e-mail, who agreed with Steve Fehr about revenue sharing but said a wide gap remains on the issues of “economics and player contracting.”
Economics is a reference to the 50-50 share of hockey-related revenue (HRR) the players and owners agree they will hit at some point. But the owners want it to happen right now while the players want a gradual reduction from the 57 per cent they earned in the previous collective agreement. The players also want existing contracts paid in full, an issue the owners have moved on but not enough for the players. There are also significant differences in player rights to free agency, salary arbitration and other contract-related matters.
Daly also agreed with Steve Fehr about the speed with which an agreement could be completed. But the rub is hitting a breakthrough, which each side says the other is resisting now that negotiations stalled. Earlier in the day, Fehr said the union was willing to consider mediation but said his “impression” was the NHL was not.
“I don’t think the issues separating us are particularly complicated, and that would suggest to me that if the parties were actually committed to reaching an agreement, it could be done rather quickly,” Daly said. “Unfortunately, we still don’t get the sense that the Players’ Association is particularly committed to reaching an agreement.”
The game’s best player expressed his frustration with the owners and said he is thinking hard about playing in Europe.
“I think it’s fair to say the longer it goes, the more you ponder it,” Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby told The Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “I really want to be optimistic. It’s not easy right now.
"It’s pretty one-sided. What have [the owners] given up to this point? They’re talking about taking away all the contracting rights. They’re not sure how they’re going to pay salaries. The questions I’d ask is why would we change that? I think we all think it’s the most competitive league in the world so why would you go and change that? The way contracts go and the way teams operate, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
With a file from James Mirtle