Pot of Gold Somewhere?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 19) – If you were driving in the Greater Toronto Area at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, chances are you noticed a breathtaking double-rainbow in the southeastern sky. Perhaps it represented a ray of hope on the gloomy NHL labor front.

After listening, in previous hours, to the double-despondency from Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, one might have expected a typhoon. Instead, the sun settled brilliantly beneath cloud on the western horizon, casting a prism of color on a dark day for hockey.

Unavoidably, it happened again.

Our hopes were brightened on Tuesday after the NHL commissioner surprisingly offered what appeared to be a foundation for productive banter between the owners and players. Nearly eight years earlier, many of us felt the same vibe upon hearing about the players’ offer of a 24 percent payroll submission. Nothing less than a salary cap was going to suffice in late-2004 and hockey was shelved until the autumn of 2005. Today, the season appears to hinge on the matter of existing player contracts. How many days, weeks or months will be sacrificed before a resolution is anyone’s guess.    

DOUBLE-RAINBOW (ABOVE) IN THE SOUTHEASTERN SKY ON THURSDAY AFTER BRILLIANT SUNSET (BELOW) AND MUCH HOCKEY GLOOM. WE ALL HOPE THERE WAS A POT OF GOLD. 

On Thursday, each camp had an entourage. Bettman marched two blocks south from the NHL’s office in the Air Canada Centre accompanied by Jeremy Jacobs, Ted Leonsis and Craig Leopold – owners, respectively, of the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild. Bolstering Donald Fehr were 18 NHL players, including several of the most prominent, lavishly compensated figures in the sport: Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Jonathan Toews and Eric Staal. None could tender a smidgen of hope.

The office tower abounded with contradiction, strikingly in the presence of Leopold – an otherwise honest, decent man that tendered among the richest contracts in league history to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Days later, he joined Bettman’s most-staunch allies in declaring the decrepitude of NHL compensation. He would know – better than anyone.

Players weren’t exactly represented by the rank-and-file. Crosby, Iginla, Toews and Staal can well afford a hockey sabbatical given their average take of $7.25-million. We wonder about respective teammates Derek Engelland, T.J. Brodie, Bryan Bickell and Pat Dwyer – all cashing the league-minimum $525,000 and hardly guaranteed prolonged deployment.

SHAWN HORCOFF OF THE EDMONTON OILERS – NO PAUPER AT $6 MILLION A SEASON – WAS FLANKED BY JAROME IGINLA ($7 MILLION) AND SIDNEY CROSBY ($7.5 MILLION).

The most profound hypocrisy – indigenous to every labor skirmish in professional sport – was the guise of solidarity.

Owners and players stood abreast, humming Kumbaya, knowing they’ll eventually resort to clawing one another like frenetic alley-cats. The NHL is not a singular entity – never has been; never will be. It is comprised of 30 divergent businesses – most absorbed in rabid competition – stretching the boundaries of rule; clamoring for every conceivable edge.

Many are pondering why the owners ravenously awarded contracts totaling more than $200 million in the hours before the lockout. Simple: they hungered to secure their most cherished assets, even knowing they would try to recant a percentage of the signed documents in the ensuing revenue quarrel. Once a Collective Bargaining Agreement is in place, grappling owners will instruct their general managers to avail any loophole in the accord – re-launching the inevitable cycle of labor disharmony.

The players, we all know, will promptly resort to gladiator warfare, disdaining any pretense of civility and respect.

In the meantime, the fraying factions work separately toward redeeming what I contend will be a 55 to 65-game dollop of the regular season – hopefully salvaging the sacred Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

More, now, from my trusty Nikon:

GARY BETTMAN AND ENTOURAGE PAUSE AT TRAFFIC LIGHT BEFORE CROSSING LAKESHORE BLVD. TO 20 BAY ST. – DOWNTOWN HOME OF THE NHL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION.

THE COMMISSIONER IS GREETED BY A PHALANX OF TELEVISION CAMERAS.

GRIM-LOOKING BRUINS OWNER JEREMY JACOBS – BETTMAN’S STAUNCHEST ALLY – ENTERS THE OFFICE TOWER, PERHAPS ANTICIPATING THE INEVITABLE.

“WE GAVE IT OUR BEST SHOT TO SAVE AN 82-GAME SCHEDULE,” INSISTED A SOMBER BETTMAN, ADDING HE AND DONALD FEHR WERE NOT “SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE.”

STANDING ALONGSIDE THE COMMISSIONER (LEFT-TO-RIGHT) WERE OWNERS JEREMY JACOBS [BOSTON], TED LEONSIS [WASHINGTON] AND CRAIG LEOPOLD [MINNESOTA].

GAGGLE OF TV CAMERAS AWAITING DONALD FEHR AND THE PLAYERS.

STANDING BEHIND THE NHLPA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR (LEFT-TO-RIGHT) WERE JAROME IGINLA, SHAWN HORCOFF, SIDNEY CROSBY, JONATHAN TOEWS, ERIC STAAL, SHANE DOAN, CARLO COLAIACOVO AND MATT STAJAN. ALL WORE LONG FACES.

DONALD FEHR SPOKE HIS PIECE: “IT’S A SAD DAY FOR HOCKEY. IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE.”

FORMER LEAF TEAMMATES COLAIACOVO (NOW WITH DETROIT) AND STAJAN (CALGARY).

MIKE CAMMALLERI (CALGARY) AND DAVID CLARKSON (NEW JERSEY).

CROSBY, STAAL, TOEWS.

JAROME IGINLA.

EVENING BECKONED SOUTH OF AIR CANADA CENTRE AFTER THE MEETINGS.

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