NEW YORK—There was biting symbolism amidst the chaos.
Want to feel insignificant? Put yourself in the middle of Manhattan mayhem on New Year’s Eve, amid the revellers and the air horns and the hordes of policemen and the shifty folks selling fake (or stolen) Michael Kors bags on the sidewalks and the thousands streaming towards an impossibly jam-packed Times Square, and try to get noticed.
So if the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association were paying any attention at all to their surroundings on Monday as they inched toward a settlement in their ugly labour war, they might have noticed that the City That Never Sleeps wasn’t paying the slightest attention to their negotiations.
The people here pay, you see, for action and performance. Not talk.
In an ideal hockey world, of course, the NHL would have been in Ann Arbour, Mich., selling its product and selling hard as the Maple Leafs and Red Wings prepared to play before 100,000 customers at The Big House on the campus of the University of Michigan.
Instead, both have conspired to make sure there have been no games played at all, instead substituting bargaining sessions starring lawyers and Twitter engagement announcements from fading stars in place of competitive hockey games.
If you reap what you sow, then both the league and the union got the attention they deserved on Monday, with a clutch of predominantly Canadian newspaper and TV folks camping outside NHL headquarters on Sixth Avenue waiting for news and covering brief media scrums conducted first by Don Fehr and then by Gary Bettman while the rest of the world’s most important city strolled past with better things to think about.
As it was, the players delivered a 26-page response to the 300-page offer tabled by the owners last Thursday, with more talks expected on the first day of 2013. Bettman was careful not to criticize or praise the NHLPA’s response, an enormous departure from four weeks earlier when he effectively lost his temper after the union chose to dicker rather than roll over.
Bettman called the latest union offer “comprehensive,” but otherwise declined to characterize it. The most optimistic view from either side suggested they were finally “into a process to make progress.” Both the union and the league seemed to clearly understand this was not the time for incendiary rhetoric.
So the talks will continue on Tuesday, and few believe there are any dealbreakers left on the table, but rather a host of complex issues on which there will need to be give-and-take to make this deal happen soon rather than dragging it out for another week or more.
Bettman laid down a Jan. 11 deadline of sorts on Monday, but both sides know that’s an artificial deadline at best. You think the season will be cancelled if there’s no deal on Jan. 12? Not a chance. The 2004-05 season wasn’t snuffed out until Feb. 16.
So enough about drop-dead dates. What really matters now is both sides want to get as many games in as possible, and a deal in the next two or three days might allow for a 52-game schedule rather than a 48-gamer.
This we know to be true: The league and union could sit down Tuesday at noon as scheduled, refuse to leave the room until there’s an agreement, and surprise hockey fans everywhere by agreeing to agree before the day is done.
The union, meanwhile, has won its manhood back by refusing to crack this time around. On Monday, a group of players including Ron Hainsey, Chris Campoli, Shane Doan, Rick DiPietro, Jamal Mayers and Marty St. Louis delivered the union’s counter-proposal alongside Don and Steve Fehr, and while you can question the structure under which the union is now operating, it has worked to ensure player unity appears rock-solid.
Perhaps a day of being ignored in Manhattan has convinced everyone involved that to get noticed again, this game needs to get back on the ice now.
Damien Cox’s blog, The Spin on Sports