MONTREAL - Canadiens star Erik Cole was on the phone from his children's schoolyard Monday afternoon, done with his daily on-ice Brossard workout.
“I’ll pick my kids up soon, go home, and then my real day begins,” he joked.
Cole’s laughter faded a moment later when he considered what looms at week’s end — a lockout by the NHL of Canadiens players and those on all 29 other clubs.
Talks to produce a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NHL Players’ Association have ground to a halt. Now, next week’s opening of training camps and likely the start of the 2012-13 regular season are teetering on the brink of a very steep cliff.
The NHL has said it will not do business as usual if a new deal isn’t struck with the union by Saturday. The players, meanwhile, insist they’d report to camps and play games if talks continued past the Sept. 15 expiration of the CBA.
“They definitely weren’t shy about their intentions. They already seem dead-set that (a lockout) is the way it’s going to go,” Cole said of the league.
“It’s really disappointing. We don’t understand why we can’t continue to play under the current system and continue to negotiate.
“A lockout affects so many more people than just the players. All the trainers and the staff of the Canadiens were all informed if there’s a lockout there will be cutbacks.
“There are people trying to pick up a few extra hours a week working the games to help make ends meet,” he said. “Games not being played affects more than just the players and fans. There’s a bigger picture and, as a group, we wish we could avoid this and keep playing until something gets sorted out.”
Cole, 33, has been involved in hockey labour for most of his professional career. With fans, he is a hugely popular member of the Canadiens, a hard-driving power forward who signed a four-year, $18-million free-agent contract here on July 1, 2011; with teammates, his leadership and influence are enormous.
Cole is the Habs’ alternate player rep on the NHLPA, seconding now-departed defenceman Chris Campoli, but he has no plans to take the lead job whenever this season finally begins.
“It would be a more positive situation if we were to elect one of our younger players to be our rep,” he said. “I’d continue to assist him and show him what the whole process is about. But to continue to bring in younger guys, have them involved, have their voices heard and their concerns answered, is probably the best solution.”
That, in a paragraph, illustrates Cole’s team-first philosophy. No matter how well he played last season, no matter the attention showered on him post-game, he would paint his effort with a brush broad enough to cover David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty – whom he says new head coach Michel Therrien has told him are expected to remain his linemates.
On Monday, Cole still had no interest in discussing his career-best season, earning 35 goals and 26 assists as one of only two Canadiens, with defenceman Josh Gorges, to play all 82 games.
“I’m never one to set personal goals,” he said. “I just go out and play the best I can on a consistent basis and my teammates and I are doing that, we’re going to have success.”PAGEBREAK
Cole can be disarmingly candid, too. Last April, as he cleaned out his Brossard dressing-room stall following the Canadiens’ final game of 2011-12, he was asked if anything had surprised him about one season in hockey-mad Montreal.
“The lack of winning was a little surprising, yeah,” he replied grimly.
During a half-hour talk Monday, Cole spoke passionately and in informed depth about the labour situation now facing the players. The native of Oswego, N.Y., whose 35 goals led the Canadiens last season, was effusive in his praise of the solidarity of the union and the strong communication among members as CBA talks lurched along before finally grinding to a stop.
As players now skate daily in Brossard and chat with the coaching staff in and around the dressing room, Cole spoke of “the elephant in the room,” that is, zero communication from the team about how the dominoes would fall should a lockout be called.
Presumably, the players would be barred from the dressing room, clinic, gym and any other part of the Bell Sports Complex that is team property. But they could rent ice in the Brossard-owned building, unless they chose to skate elsewhere.
Players might be divided on the club’s annual golf tournament at Royal Montreal next Wednesday; it’s an important fundraiser for the team’s Children’s Foundation, but if there’s a lockout, players could draw a line they’d rather not do.
Would the Canadiens stage their rookie camp, scheduled to begin the day after a lockout could be called?
And unless the NHL withdraws its stated intent to lock out the players, expect the initiation of action by the union with the Quebec Labour Board.
“If that goes through,” Cole said hypothetically of the QLB ruling illegal a lockout of Canadiens players, members of an uncertified union in this province, “then we understand that we could go to the rink every day and continue to work out as a group.
“We’d have time to learn and become more familiar with new (coaching) systems, which would be extremely beneficial.”
Cole has spoken with Therrien, first by phone when the coach was hired, then face-to-face in Brossard in recent days, and talked about the challenges the club faces when it does play hockey.
“It’s been good to be able to sit and chat a bit with Michel and his staff and get a little familiar with them,” he said. “But it’s a process that doesn’t just happen with a few handshakes and hellos.
“With the injection of optimism and energy with a new general manager (Marc Bergevin) and coaching staff, we’re all excited to get going. They’re excited and I feel awful for them, that they have to begin their tenure here under these circumstances.
“I just hope that, if we’re able to push this through and not be locked out, we could take full advantage of it and get ourselves even more prepared for the season.”
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