Johnson: Why did it take so long for meaningful NHL lockout talks?
Optimism abounds after Tuesday’s marathon sessions in New York, but we all could have done without the posturing up to this point
This was the scenario hockey fans had long been waiting for:
Order in some Chinese or a few extra-large pepperoni pizza pies (and, please, don’t fight about who’s on the hook for the delivery kid’s tip). Lock the door.
Affix the Do Not Disturb sign to the doorknob. And stay put. Get serious, get steamed, get emotional. But get together and at least try and get something accomplished, to find even the smallest piece of common ground to build from.
On the 80th Day of the latest NHL lockout, six owners and 18 players, chaperoned by the second lieutenants of the warring parties, huddled in a posh New York hotel, late into the night, with the 2012-2013 National Hockey League season fast fading into a vapour trail.
New faces, new blood, new voices.
And, from the tone drifting out of midtown after midnight EST, there is now at least tangible reason for optimism.
“It was a long day but a constructive day,” said NHLPA second-in-command Steve Fehr, emerging from marathon meetings. “We had a good dialogue. A lot of work still needs to be done.”
He called it maybe the best day of negotiating yet. Which, it must be said, ain’t sayin’ a whole lot.
Still, that Fehr was standing side-by-side with his league counterpart, Bill Daly, when he said it, had to lift the hearts of those who had given up hope.
“I appreciate the efforts of the players,” said Daly.
The question now being: Why, oh why, did this take so long? Where was this degree of urgency in October? November?
Honestly, it leaves you shaking your head.
If one night of serious discussion with the right people involved is what was needed to trigger meaningful dialogue, both sides should be ashamed — or at least, more ashamed — at the lost prestige, the lost revenue, the lost loyalty.
By barring commissioner Gary Bettman and the Donald, the main protagonists in this nasty business, from the room on Tuesday, unencumbered by their grating, condescending George and Martha/Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? routine, the initial bargaining session lasted for over five hours.
And if there is — fingers remain crossed here — headway made that ultimately leads to a resolution in this unseemly impasse and gets the league back on the ice by New Year’s at the latest, what earthly use are either of them going forward?
The two sides met, deliberated among themselves, broke for chow, convened again. Exhausted media, long bereft of fresh angles with which to fill space or airtime, hung out hobo-like in the hotel lobby, trying to avoid eye-contact with increasingly suspicious hotel staff (The sight of Donald Fehr furtively working his cellphone being enough to induce spasms of activity and conjecture).
Tuesday’s owner-player tete-a-tete was generally seem as a the last-ditch effort in saving the season. Games had already been cancelled through Dec. 14th. Another round axed would’ve pushed the past Jan. 1st and made any ‘meaningful’ season nothing more than an illusion.
And, to be blunt, the whole tawdry affair had really gotten to be too much. You’ve got billionaire owners who signed contracts in good faith who now want to amend those deals. You’ve got players being paid millions of dollars a year lamenting about financial robbery as much of the world’s economy hangs grimly in the balance, sounding silly and just slightly petty and in the process.
And with no one to cheer for in this game, the general populace has tuned hockey out; adopted a tell-me-when-it’s-over approach.
Apathy, they should both understand, being the most dangerous of all adversaries.
To read Done Deal into this would be ill-advised. No one in possession of all their faculties should be conned into reading pending solution from one night of talks. We’ve been led lemming-like down that particular garden path before.
Heading in, the chasm of dispensation of revenue, guaranteed contracts, free agency and maximum contract term limits seemed too wide, too impassable, to be navigated. But Tuesday is proof that under the right conditions, inroads can be made. Hallelujah!
Among the players involved were a group of heavy hitters led by Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Miller, Brad Richards and Shane Doan. On the ownership side, a couple of the familiar well-known hawks, Boston Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs and Calgary’s Murray Edwards, were offset by more moderate owners, like Larry Tanenbaum of the Leafs and Pittsburgh’s Ron Burkle, eager to get a deal done.
The very fact that there was face-to-face meeting between employers and employees — Burkle with Sidney Crosby (who, by the way, flew to New York on the same flight) and Edwards with Michael Cammalleri, for instance — without the top hired guns around to colour opinion couldn’t help but be beneficial.
It’s premature to believe, read too much into, or even to invest emotion in a resolution just yet. The two Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Bettman and Fehr, must still have their say.
But as of late Tuesday night, there had been progress. If not peace, then at least a truce in pursuit of a common good.
What’s better is that they’re meeting again today.
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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