Johnson: Hockey world dazed and confused as sport remains stuck in a boardroom
Enough posturing and potshots, just find a way to play before nobody cares anymore
Well, that went rather well, wouldn’t you say?
To think of all the passionate, gullible folks out there as late as Wednesday night, busily wondering about possible camp startup dates and number of games possible and hinting confidently with a knowing wink that they’d heard coaches had already been in touch with players — strictly on the QT, of course — telling them to be ready to hit the ice running.
And yet here we are.
Standing, dazed, in the middle of a patch of scorched ice.
Hockey, once more, finds itself caught in the crosshairs.
Of galloping greed. Of individual agenda taking precedence collective good.
NHLPA Svengali Donald Fehr went first in Thursday’s little melodrama, assuming his best Little Lord Fauntleroy stance while extolling the players’ chastity, pliability — and they had backed up a lot — before disingenuously claiming that after two days of what had seemed to be positive discourse everything was now in place for a deal to be struck (His immediate re-appearance at the Marriot Times Square 10 minutes later to feign shock and stunned indignation at the league’s prompt cellphone dismissal of the terms was a nice, if thinly-transparent, touch).
Funny how, when Fehr was re-introduced to the negotiations Thursday, whatever goodness that had been built up over the preceding 48 hours melted like Margaret Hamilton being doused with a bucket of water. Even the moderate owners brought in to try to broker good faith got their backs up and bridled.
His arch-nemesis, the Bilbo Baggins-like Gary Bettman, arrived in short order, in a far more feisty mood, calling Fehr’s earlier optimism “incomprehensible” and in a long-winded 45-minute tirade basically demanded Fehr’s mouth be washed out with lye soap, claiming his side had relented on many key issues in order that three vital components to be considered sacrosanct.
Result? The league pulled its concessions off the table. More mudslinging. A larger chasm between the sides. The league accusing the PA of ever-shifting areas of concern. The PA accusing the league of intractability. Both claiming the other has no intention of cutting a deal.
No mas. No mas!
The owners are after a 10-year CBA deal (with either side opting out at eight), the players are demanding an eight-year deal (opting out at six). The owners want contracts at a five-year max, to protect themselves from self-flagellation, while the players won’t hear of anything less than eight.
What’s next? Well, the PA could consider decertification, which would disband the union leaving every player free to individually sue his contract’s NHL owner. But that is messy in the extreme and would take months. As a negotiation ploy, far from foolproof.
More rounds of talks? Well, they’re running perilously short of time to get in anything resembling a season and always wind further apart even as they seem to inch closer together.
Much of the scorn throughout this tawdry melodrama has been justly reserved for Bettman — and go on, loathe him to your heart’s content — but it’s time Fehr, the players’ hired gun, comes in for a measure of scrutiny, too. His immense reputation was hired at not inconsiderable cost to get a deal done, to get them back playing. Off what we saw Thursday, he’s failed miserably in that mandate. And if, as has been reported, he felt he could bluff a little longer to wedge out a little more, leading to the late collapse in negotiations, he misplayed his cards. Badly.
You hope to heavens he isn’t arrogant enough to use his contentious, if successful, baseball model for hockey. That’d be like confusing London, Ont., with London, England. Still, that worry grows by the day.
The whole sordid mess was hours away when a large group of Calgary Flames gathered at Father David Bauer to get in a bit of game with the University of Calgary Dinos.
At that point in time, before the floorboards gave way, the cautious optimism of Tuesday-Wednesday had rubbed off.
“We’ve put our faith in the negotiating committee and the guys who are there,” said Flames’ player rep Matt Stajan. “Those guys have been doing it for us all week. They’ve done a great job. They know what they’re doing.
“We’re hoping to play hockey soon. That’s for sure. In saying that, we want to make sure the deal’s fair and we have people in New York who are going to do that for us.
“I think I’ve avoided being optimistic or pessimistic here. You can’t guess or hope anymore. When a day gets done, it get done. We’re all hopeful. We want to play.”
Everybody pays lip-service to the contention of wanting to play. But their actions betray them.
“It’s been pretty up and down,” admitted captain Jarome Iginla. “You try not to get too high or too low, but it’s hard to do. The whole time, all the way along, you’re hoping that they find the deal. On both sides. I’ve been trying not too say too much about it because you get sick of reading it and you don’t want to be part of it.
“But it sounds like they’ve been working away at it, and that’s great.
“I’ve been hoping for three months we’d get back.”
Iginla’s reaction to the farcical events of later in the evening went mercifully unrecorded. But that wait he sounded so frustrated about looks about to be extended.
Used to be, hockey was about idols and moments caught and held in the imagination; about allegiance and shared experience. Now, it’s about lawyers and dollar signs and the blame-game.
Used to be the bar is a place you went afterwards to discuss a game. Now it’s where the guys who wield the power, who compromise our dreams, ply their trade.
Thursday’s astonishing plot-twists in midtown Manhattan make you at long last wonder if there will, indeed, be any sort of hockey season in 2012-2013.
Or even if one would be worth it, under the circumstances.
We’re almost beyond caring. Which, given how much, how passionately, we care about this game, says it all.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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