So what new is 'Bruin' in encouraging NHL lockout talks?
Don’t so quickly discount the source — could broadcaster Steve Burton’s ‘scoop’ be credited to Boston hardline owner Jeremy Jacobs?
VANCOUVER — Hands up, if you’d ever heard of Steve Burton before the Boston-based WBZ-TV talking head quoted sources Monday night as saying an announcement ending the NHL lockout was imminent.
Me, either. But amid all the expressions of skepticism, disbelief, and downright mockery that greeted Burton’s “scoop” — bear in mind, there had been barely a shred of evidence that the two sides in the CBA dispute were within a hundred miles of seeing eye-to-eye at that point — there was one nagging doubt.
Boston? Hmm, yes. Boston.
Home of NHL chairman of the board Jeremy Jacobs, whose lips move when Gary Bettman speaks. Nothing, according to the folklore, happens at the NHL governors level without the say-so of the Bruins’ much vilified owner, who (if you believe his critics) has been driving the bus on the owners’ lockout strategy and probably has had an end-date in mind all along.
So out of nowhere — or practically nowhere; there were those few sunny optimists who thought the fresh faces and voices from this week’s owners-players palaver in New York had about a 10 per cent chance of producing progress — Burton goes to air with his blockbuster, and the world laughs.
But (admittedly with benefit of hindsight) think about it: a high-level source, almost certainly a Boston source, for where else would a not-particularly-plugged-into-hockey sports anchor turn for information, says the 80-day impasse is about to end.
And within 24 hours, the entire complexion of the labour war softens. Owners arrive in New York acting chummy. Players troop into the meeting room, wondering if they’re about to be snookered without their leader, Donald Fehr, along to identify the treacherous bits, only to find the other side is in the mood, perhaps not to get into bed on the spot, but at least for a little foreplay.
What caused the warming trend?
Hard-headed realization that they were abusing the fan base unnecessarily and might never get them back in some markets? Ha. Since when did they ever worry about the fans?
Dissension in the ranks, with moderates pressing the hawks to make a deal, given the relatively surmountable obstacles separating the two sides’ positions? Unlikely. Bettman has been confoundingly successful at herding his cats.
The Pittsburgh axis of reason — player (Sidney Crosby), agent (Pat Brisson), part owner (Mario Lemieux) and majority moneybags (Ron Burkle) — hashing out the differences over beers for a couple of weeks and then bringing their discussions, along with an air of detente, to the meetings? Many seem to think so.
The inclusion of Burkle, who has a reputation for deal-making, and other probable moderates like Toronto’s Larry Tanenbaum and Winnipeg’s Mark Chipman and perhaps Tampa’s Jeff Vinik, appeared to be an olive branch that the players could finally reach for — albeit warily, still suspicious that it might yet be snatched away — without seeing the hated visage of Bettman across the table.
But who sent the owners’ collaboration team into that room? Who hand-picked them? Who okayed the roster? If Bettman, and the man whose hand is up the back of the commissioner’s suit jacket operating his controls, hadn’t been ready to parlay, the moderates would never have been unbound and ungagged.
In the end, the commish may be able to claim credit for the idea of pouring oil on the troubled waters — and Donald Fehr the other half — simply because they were willing to take their egos out of the equation for a while, though neither has been far away during breaks in the talks.
But Bettman didn’t do any of it in a vacuum. He didn’t lead the owners into this lockout kicking and screaming. He led them because that’s where they wanted to go, and if it ends now, it will end because this was the time that was chosen by them — or by the most powerful among them, and the rest went along.
It’s not as though a deal is going to be made today or tomorrow. The fine points, even if a broad agreement is reached, will take some time to hash out.
And there is this, too, from a Bruins fan: “@ViewFrom311 - Don't sell Jacobs short, he can still screw this up. #Burtonknew”
But if these meetings lead to a CBA, it almost doesn’t matter whether Burton’s prediction had the timing exactly right. The point is, the thaw started right on cue, exactly when his source said it would.
Whether it takes three days or a week to go through the fine print and give us a schedule — guaranteed to be too many games crammed into too few nights, extending too late into June — if the endgame, after months of nothing, began Tuesday, hockey’s ultimate insider will have turned out to be a guy who’s more into football and baseball.
Check out that Twitter hashtag, #Burtonknew, if you don’t believe me.
All hail Steve Burton, hockey oracle. From Boston.
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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