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."
I read that today and wondered if he was actually within earshot when we talked about one of the real differences this time around – that there is no vehicle for the sort of back-channel communications our reader suggests should take place between the likes of Geoff Molson and Mario Lemieux.
Back in 2004, the NHLPA had a player president, Trevor Linden, and an executive committee, in addition to an executive director, Bob Goodenow, and his deputy, Ted Saskin. Goodenow was the No. 1 man on the bargaining team, and acted as a sort of coach or general manager, but Linden was the de facto captain of the players' team.
As a group, players understand that sort of chain of command – teammate, captain, coach, manager - and feel comfortable operating within it. If they wanted a private word about the progression of the lockout, without engaging Goodenow, they could do so with Linden, who was highly regarded by his peer group for integrity and fairness.
Ultimately, it was Linden and one of the secondary negotiators on the owners' team, former NHL board chairman Harley Hotchkiss, who made the first inroads which eventually led to a settlement in July, 2005.
In the aftermath of that agreement, there was a significant bloodletting within the players association. A new hierarchy emerged that no longer features a player as president.
Instead, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has a far more diffused base, with players popping in and out of the negotiations all the time. Just about every time Fehr steps before the microphone, he stresses his open-door policy – how any player who wants to engage in the process, or needs a point clarified, is welcome to do so. Every so often, whenever they need a show of strength, a who's who of NHL stars appears at Fehr's side, to demonstrate solidarity. Sidney Crosby weighs in periodically, just to affirm his support of the NHLPA negotiating stance.
But when the office of NHLPA president disappeared in the restructuring, the dynamic of the negotiations also changed. Fehr hired his brother Steve as his No. 2 and suddenly, there are no opportunities for any back channel talks. It is a development that is frustrating the league to no end, one of the many changes the NHL didn't give enough weight to when the process started back in July, when it fired its first CBA volley.
They presented a wish list for the current agreement as a legitimate opening offer. Instead of dismissing it out of hand, the NHLPA just let it sit there for close to two months, percolating in the public consciousness, ensuring that animosity would build up towards the owners. It would have been easy for the NHLPA to respond with a counter offer right away. The fact that they didn't was stroke of public relations genius, one which the league didn't anticipate.
The players had the better part of the summer to work themselves into a lather over that bit of foolishness. The NHL then exacerbated the problem by hurriedly signing dozens of players to contract extensions just before the Sept. 15 lockout deadline, providing more ammunition for Fehr and Co. It also gave the player rank-and-file a chance to rally around a perfectly legitimate question – if the economics of the league were so bad, why were teams throwing so much money around just before the deal expired?
So now, as the NHL makes incrementally improving offers from the July starting point, it is coming up against a wall of doubt and suspicion. Mostly, the players have decided just to trust Fehr for guidance on when they might make their best possible deal, without sacrificing a full season. When will that moment come? Will it ever come? Will the league dig in? Will the players association always ask for one more concession, until they get to the same point they did back in February of 2005, when they ran out of time to save any sort of a meaningful season?
The answer, right now, is nobody knows for sure. Most think it could go either way, with the wild card being Fehr. Negotiators on the NHL side have consulted with their counterparts in major league baseball and the intelligence they have gathered from them has them worried. The league doesn't plan a meek surrender, but they're not sure how far they can push the NHLPA, which was dug in on revenue-sharing, and then the 'make-whole' provision and now on contracting rights.
In short, this is unknown territory, with all new players on the NHLPA side. Generally, in every sort of negotiation such as this, there is some ebb and flow. Momentum builds and then stalls. Optimism ran high about two weeks ago and now pessimism reigns supreme.
About the only thing I'm prepared to venture is that the drop-dead date to play games in 2012-13 is still two months or more away. That means there will be at least two more opportunities for the sides to get closer and see if they can't finally bridge that gap. You'd think there would be urgency now, but you'd be wrong. With lawyers and accountants in charge, the real urgency doesn't start until the clock is five minutes from midnight and the end is in sight. So hang on to your hats, because realistically, they are just at the half way point now – two months into the lockout, with another two months remaining to save a fraction of the 2012-13 season - and maybe the industry's future as well.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT: When the Calgary Flames let Brent Sutter go this summer, replacing him behind the bench with Bob Hartley, who would have thought that Sutter would be coaching again before anyone else in the NHL? But it happened this week, when the team he owns and manages, the Western Hockey League's Red Deer Rebels, fired coach Jesse Wallin after a 10-11-1-1 start and Sutter installed himself back behind the bench. Red Deer likely would have been a different team this year if the Edmonton Oilers had wanted to keep Ryan Nugent-Hopkins closer to home. The Calder Trophy runner-up in 2012 still had junior eligibility left, but he is playing at the moment for the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City … Usually, on the Sunday of Hall of Fame weekend, I get together over dinner with Lanny McDonald to catch up. This year, McDonald had a better offer, and had an informal reunion with ex-Leafs Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler, Tiger Williams and their spouses. A riotous night, McDonald tells me … You never know what to make of injuries that occur to locked-out NHLers playing elsewhere in order to stay sharp. The fact is, they happen, just as they might happen in the NHL, if play was under way. The Red Wings' Valtteri Filppula, or example, sprained his right knee playing for Jokerit and Finland and will miss up to eight weeks, which probably gives him enough time to heal, if the NHL ever does play this season. The same cannot be said for the Ottawa Senators' young defenceman Jared Cowen, who is scheduled to undergo hip surgery on Saturday and is out for the season. Cowen is just 21 and played all 82 games for Ottawa last season, and was an underrated factor on their 92-point playoff team.
AND FINALLLY: Arguably the most interesting injury news came via the Chicago Tribune this past week, when the Blackhawks' most outspoken critic of Bettman, team captain Jonathan Toews, reported that he is only now fully recovered from a concussion that caused him to miss two months of action last season, even though he was deemed healthy enough to participate in the playoffs.
According to the Tribune report, Toews was symptom-free and had cleared all NHL concussion protocols prior to his return, but he wasn't feeling 100 per cent until he visited the same Atlanta-based team of chiropractors and neurologists that treated Crosby for his concussion symptoms as well. Toews explained it to the paper this way: "Even if you don't feel something and you think you're symptom-free, there's probably still something there that's kind of hindering you and affecting the way your brain works. It was just a lot of eye-movement things. My eyes didn't track very well. They didn't look from one target to the next very well. My balance with my eyes closed and my head turned a certain way was terrible. (There were) little things that I would think were normal because I didn't feel something in my head."
Sheesh. Doesn't sound very good, does it?
Toews incidentally said that he will now consider playing opportunities in Europe, if the lockout stalemate continues. His Blackhawks' teammate, Patrick Kane, has already been cavorting in Switzerland for more than a month now.