Vancouver Canucks national anthem singer Mark Donnelly (2R) sings Oh Canada as locked-out players Kevin Bieksa (L), Jason Garrison and Ryan Kesler hosted fans of all ages for a street hockey game at the basketball courts under the Cambie Street Bridge as the NHL disruption continues in Vancouver, December 05, 2012.
Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, PNG
VANCOUVER — Ryan Kesler refereeing road hockey is like Arthur Fonzarelli jumping a shark on water skis. Things have gone way too far in the National Hockey League lockout.
And lest there was any doubt about this, the @NHLPodium account on Twitter – profile description: “I am always bad news” – was nearing 10,000 followers its first day of inanimate existence.
In New York, 18 millionaire players and six billionaire owners finally mustered enough goodwill and urgency to begin what appeared to be earnest give-and-take of negotiations to end the NHL's labour war.
And on a basketball court under the Cambie Bridge in Vancouver, dog walkers and skater kids were disrupted Wednesday afternoon by the outbreak of a road hockey game hastily announced and officiated by Kesler.
The Vancouver Canuck star refereed the stockinged Green Men, anthem singer Mark Donnelly, 50 road hockey players of varying ages and athleticism, and Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa.
“It's just a good time,” Kesler said. “Obviously, the fans are missing hockey and it's something we can do for them.”
Kesler feels their pain, if not quite the sting endured by teammates. He has been collecting full paycheques on his $5 million salary during the lockout while recovering from shoulder and wrist surgeries.
There was nearly $10 million worth of referees on the pavement, as Kesler's striped partner was injured $4.6-million-a-year defenceman Jason Garrison. Bieksa, who organized a charity game in October, was the only Canuck who played.
But the Green Men posed for photos, posing the question: Do they smile behind their stockings? And Donnelly sang O Canada, showing that he has lost half his body mass but none of his voice.
“It's just something we wanted to do to have some fun,” Bieksa said. “Every time we've been talking hockey lately it's been serious and (about) the CBA and all that, so we're just going back to our roots for a fun road hockey game. In the pouring rain.”
Hey, it's December in Vancouver.
In New York, it was Day 81 of the NHL lockout. And, remarkably, it began with the same good intentions among owners and players that was evident on the basketball court across the continent.
The warmth and fuzziness began Tuesday night when, for the first time since the lockout began, the NHL and its Players' Association jointly held a press briefing. NHL vice-president Bill Daly publicly thanked the players for their effort and, while hell froze over, NHLPA deputy Steve Fehr called it the “best day” of the lockout. The happy couple looked like they'd just fallen off the top of a wedding cake. After partying for three days.
It set a tone of goodwill.
When governors exited their board meeting in New York on Wednesday after being briefed on negotiations by Daly, sparking breathless Twitter descriptions of how governors exited their board meeting in New York after being briefed by Daly, Columbus Blue Jackets' president John Davidson said: “We feel good about the information we got.”
Governors weren't supposed to say anything, of course, but they must have felt so darn good inside they couldn't keep the sunshine to themselves.
Toronto Maple Leafs' chairman Larry Tanenbaum said: “We're going to continue to talk until we get a deal.”
Then I'm pretty sure the media, deprived by the lockout of travel points and pre-game meals, did the wave and, seized by the season, broke into song: “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how lovely are thy branches.”
Even reviled commissioner Gary Bettman got into the spirit, standing behind the far more popular @NHLPodium and accidentally smiling as he spoke for 26 seconds to inform reporters he wouldn't be saying anything.
“We are pleased with the process that is ongoing,” he said.
Or did he say “progress?” Anyway, he was pleased.
It seemed so was everyone else.
The change in tone in the negotiations may have been spurred by moderate Pittsburgh Penguins' owner Ron Burkle and superstar player Sidney Crosby, which means statues across Canada of Crosby will need to be upgraded to gold from bronze. Don't worry, Burkle will pay for them.
There was a report on Sportsnet that some NHL coaches were phoning players to put them on standby for training camps, which led to the league reminding teams that coaches are to have no contact with players during the lockout.
There was a report a 56-game season would start on Dec. 20.
There was traction.
There was, my goodness, optimism.
And although tensions ramped up considerably in the evening, according to reports, at least the sides were still talking into this morning.
Nearly five months after Bettman issued his declaration of war by demanding the players' share of revenue be slashed to 43 per cent from 57, the NHLPA apparently made an offer that neither offended nor infuriated owners, who instead counter-proposed. Back and forth it went.
If there's a willingness to compromise, there should be little to prevent a speedy resolution. The contractual issues – things like term length and year-to-year salary variance – that each side says are so vital, don't affect by even one dollar the distribution of wealth between owners and players.
And some of the issues the owners propose would actually work in the players' favour. Only two players per team, on average, are on contracts longer than five years. Shorter contracts mean more free agency, which has always been a player's most powerful salary lever, and less money committed to lifetime contracts under a hard salary cap means more cash freed up for other players.
And the eight- or 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement owners seek could also be a good thing for players because their downward trend of revenue share probably isn't reversing in the next CBA.
The deal still comes down to the $182-million disagreement over how to compensate players on existing contracts as the NHLPA share transitions to 50 per cent from 57. And with any luck, that divide became a little narrower on Wednesday, when from Vancouver to New York there was a feeling that an NHL season may yet materialize.
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