Only 13 other NHL players have had the same great pleasure as Sean O’Donnell: bearing witness to not one, not two, but three lockouts in their respective careers.
O’Donnell was just breaking in with the Los Angeles Kings in the 1994-95 season; the same year Adrian Aucoin was moving up the ladder in the Vancouver Canucks system.
The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association settled that dispute in time to salvage a 48-game season, but couldn’t come to terms on an agreement in 2004-05, and both players lost full seasons in the prime of their respective careers.
So here we are, almost two weeks into yet another labour dispute and, in O’Donnell’s case, if the lockout goes the distance, then his career is flat-out over.
“Not even 99.9-per-cent sure,” the 40-year-old free agent said. “It would be 100-per-cent impossible to miss a year and try to come back and be effective.”
O’Donnell and Aucoin, 39, both veteran defencemen, have collectively played 2,296 NHL regular-season games (with O’Donnell winning a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks).
They are well-respected senior statesmen who annually find work, in part because they are smart and thoughtful players who exert a positive influence on a team’s dressing room.
Aucoin signed as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the summer, and he’s there, in Ohio, for the duration – however long that may be. He has five children enrolled in school and though he played for a time with Modo in the Swedish league during the last lockout, he isn’t searching for a European option this time around.
Instead, he hopes common sense eventually prevails, with talks scheduled to start again Friday, led by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr.
“As far as the lockout, I’m a pretty positive guy, but I’m pretty realistic, too,” Aucoin said. “One of the theories that we’ve had all along is that we’re on ‘Gary Time’ – and that’s the way it is. He has his date set when he has to get something and we have no choice than to abide by it.”
And how does O’Donnell, who spent 2011-12 with the Chicago Blackhawks, see Lockout 3.0 unfolding?
“I just hope there’s not too many games [cancelled] and I certainly hope the year’s not gone,” he said. “It’d be a shame. The league’s got some good momentum and things have never been better, so I don’t think we can miss a full year. It doesn’t benefit anyone.
“There were really the haves and have-nots as far as last time, where you had five or six teams where payrolls were $65-[million] or $70-million and then you had certain teams that were down around $20-million. That’s not the case any more. They have a salary cap,” O’Donnell said. “I mean, it’s a good system. Do the owners want more? Of course they do. If I was an owner, I’d probably want more. Who knows?”
“But you can see, since the [2004-05] lockout ended, you’ve had seven different teams win the Cup. … You’ve only had Detroit and Pittsburgh that have been there twice. They’ve got the salary cap. They’ve got the parity they want.
“Legitimately, all 30 teams really believe you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. You get in and you have a chance. L.A. was eighth last year. Two years ago, Tampa was pretty low and they went on a run. It’s everything they want.”
The NHLPA’s latest proposal imagines an NHL business model different from what it has now, with additional revenue sharing among teams and with the players agreeing to put the brakes on future salary increases as league revenues grow. It is an offer that gained no traction with the ownership side when it was first made.
“Any employer would have a hard time taking direction from their employees,” Aucoin said, “but if it’s going to grow your business, do whatever it takes. That’s a no-brainer. I can’t stress enough it’s not a bunch of dumb jocks, sitting around the room, coming up with ideas, saying: ‘This might work, that might work.’
“We actually hired literally some of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. Don Fehr and his brother and a few of the other guys we’ve hired, it’s amazing, he can talk for five or six hours and not lose the attention of hockey players.”
Aucoin paused for a breath and to deliver the punch line.
“I mean, we cannot sometimes be in a three-minute meeting before a game without losing focus,” he said.
“On the economic side of it, we have people who’ve put these scenarios together on how it works, and how it would work.
“That’s why, we as players, know that there are teams out there, I’m not saying they didn’t vote for the lockout, but we know there are teams out there that are very happy with what we’ve put forward. Even ecstatic. And in the long run, the big teams, they’re going to make money regardless. And when the revenues grow more, they’re going to make more.
“That’s our argument. We will take less of a percentage as long as the pie is growing bigger. And that should be the same with the owners. But right now, they’re are just like, ‘no, it’s our pie.’ That’s the way it’s going to work.”
The pointlessness of it all, not the fact that it may cost him a chance to play again, is what bothers O’Donnell the most. Which is why his is a rare voice of optimism, amid all the current doom and gloom.
“Things are good in the NHL,” he said. “The way the revenues have risen the last seven years, with the economy the way it’s been, has been remarkable. I just don’t see all the parties saying, ‘we need more of the pie and we’re willing to give up the whole year to get it.’
“Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see it happening.”