BROSSARD, QC. — My weekend started right where it should, in an arena watching hockey. I was invited to observe and photograph a practise of sorts from ice-level last Friday and Saturday morning. Nine players from the Canadiens organization were on the ice including Yannick Weber, Ryan White, Lars Eller, David Desharnais, Louis Leblanc, Steve Quailer, Morgan Ellis, Peter Delmas, and none other than Andrei Markov.
Eller, White, Ellis and Leblanc have been regulars at Brossard all summer. For a few days, Canadiens skating consultant Paul Lawson came by to put the expanded group through a workout. And it wasn’t a walk in Parc Jean-Drapeau.
Lawson was stressing the importance of good skating technique, long strides and staying low, using resistance to replicate game fatigue. This training intends to establish muscle memory which takes over when exhaustion sets in.
Markov and Eller were the two strongest skaters on the ice, but not too far behind was Quailer. I have always been impressed with Quailer’s skills — has a quick release, heavy shot and protects the puck well — but he has improved his skating and added some bulk to his large frame. He could be a pleasant surprise to Bulldog’s fans this season.
Following the hour long practise, the group on the ice was joined by a few more Canadiens, namely Brian Gionta, Colby Armstrong, and Erik Cole for a scrimmage. Also taking part was Kris Letang from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nicolas Blanchard, a prospect with the Carolina Hurricanes and Kyle MacKinnon from the Providence Bruins.
It wasn’t hockey at the highest NHL-level but the players were competitive and at times, flashed elite skill. I will admit, I temporarily ditched my pessimism about the labour situation and wondered if I would be back to Brossard in a week for the opening of Canadiens training camp.
Then came the news on Saturday that the NHL and NHLPA would not be meeting… again. The two parties haven’t met for a formal bargaining session since August 31. Neither group has demonstrated a sense of urgency as the lockout deadline looms. I have maintained for some time that each side seems to be using the pre-September 15th period to garner public support.
The players have held a decided edge on that front this time around but the advantage appears to be diminishing of late. Could there be a connection with the stunt on the weekend said to be spearheaded by Canadiens players threatening to take legal action to prevent a lockout.
A letter sent by Montreal-based lawyer Michael Cohen to the league on Friday indicates that Canadiens players will make an application to the Quebec Labour Board if the NHL locks out the players on September 15. Cohen argues that as the NHLPA isn’t certified by the QLB, that a lockout would be illegal according to provincial law.
“The NHL seems content to lock out the players if an agreement isn’t reached this week, and we would like the Quebec Labour Board to step in and inform them that their lockout would be in direct violation of the Quebec labour laws.” — Erik Cole
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, responding on behalf of the league, called the player’s action a “distraction.”
If seducing fans back to their side was their simple goal, the player’s move was a resounding success. Fans rushed to Twitter to applaud the players for everything from finding a creative way to jumpstart negotiations to being godly saviours of the hockey season.
If the Canadiens were the only team to escape the lockout, who would they play, AHL teams? Yes, that was indeed a question being asked on Twitter. For some fans, the player union’s legal maneuveuring was not easy to comprehend and they set their expectations high.
Amidst all the hoopla and high-fiving I felt a sense of discouragement. When the sides resort to gimmicks, they aren’t focussed on solving real issues. Does union boss Donald Fehr have a room full of legal researchers tracking down loopholes in provincial, state and municipal statutes?
Probably not. But tactics like this can only serve to further entrench positions prolonging serious discussions required to move the negotiations toward an agreement.
If the Canadiens players receive a favorable ruling, they will have access to team facilities and they will get their paycheques. But don’t expect them to be playing any games.
Some have speculated that this move will cause a shift in the balance of power, leveling the playing field and leading to more productive negotiations. It is a stunt designed to pander to the fans and has little to do with the process.
Daly was terse in his assessment, “This is a joke.”
Alberta may also be in play but even if both actions are successful, only three teams would be exempt from the terms of the lockout.
“I think even though it’s only three teams that may be involved in this, it may put pressure on other teams to say ‘You know what, these guy are getting ready, they’re practising, they’re getting themselves ready to play — maybe we should have our players doing the same sort of thing. It’s unfortunate that it’s not the same laws in every city but I think it gives us an opportunity to put pressure on the owners to try to get a deal done so that other teams can join us and we can start playing on time.” — Josh Gorges
Let’s take Gorges at his word. He is sincere when stressing that the labour action is not about pursuing a salary, instead they hope to restart negotiations.
But Gorges, Cole and Mathieu Darche are little more than willing pawns of Fehr. The NHLPA is as guilty as the league in showing an unwillingness to meet. However Fehr knows that the public will be receptive to a message from their hockey heroes.
Fans seem to be observing this process as a boxing match, cheering and scoring each body blow. Here’s the thing. We need both boxers to leave the ring healthy, not necessarily satisfied, but healthy.
That means the principals need to return to the bargaining table. Rather than silly distractions, they must focus on solutions to revenue-sharing and the player’s share of hockey-related revenue. Then and only then can we all begin to get optimistic about the start of a season again.
Gary, Donald..let’s get it done. I’m missing Brossard already.