At almost playoff-like intensity, emotions run hot in a lockout.
NHL management and teams, individual players and the players association are spending more time, sadly, trying to shape public perception and win the public relations war than they are trying to negotiate a lockout-smiting Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Eventually, this will change. In quieter days ahead, less public discourse might actually mean the protagonists (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr of the NHLPA) and their lieutenants (Bill Daly, Steve Fehr) are rolling up their sleeves toward a deal.
Meanwhile, as diehard fans seethe over Saturday’s lockout launch, the last thing an NHL team wants the public to believe is that the most vulnerable of the vulnerable – charitable organizations – will be left wanting while hockey players and owners shut down operations in a $3.3-billion squabble of elitists.
Monday afternoon, while speaking to a scrum large enough to confirm that media, too, are starving for a return to NHL hockey, Senators president Cyril Leeder spent more time answering questions about his team’s charities than he might have expected he would.
His message: charities that count on the Senators need not worry. This NHL team that contributes between $3 million and $3.5 million to regional charities over the course of a season will not pass the puck in the event of a extended lockout.
If that means Leeder has to trade in his business suit for a Spartacat costume to meet public appearance demands for charitable causes . . . well, we get the impression the Senators co-founder would be game.
“I think the community has come to rely on the Ottawa Senators as an important contributor (to charities) and we’re not going to walk away from those responsibilities,” Leeder said. “We did have a lockout in ’04 and that year we built Roger’s House and the Sensplex – we made an extra commitment back to the community in those years (04-05).
“I don’t see that changing. I think we’re going to be very active in the community.”
In fact, Leeder says the NHL club is going to soon announce plans for another community rink to be built in the region. In effect, business doesn’t slow down, just because season ticket sales have slowed to a crawl, NHL training camps are in jeopardy and exhibition games are about to get cancelled.
If anything, a slimmed-down staff (from the usual 170-strong) will have its hands full dealing with Ottawa 67′s home games (at Scotiabank Place during Lansdowne renovations), and a busy concert slate. All full time staff will be working reduced hours in a four-day work week, if they weren’t laid off on Monday, as was the case with “more than 10″ employees. Try telling these people about to stop receiving pay cheques that the NHL pre-season is meaningless.
Just in case of a sudden end to the lockout (don’t hold your breath just yet), the organization has to be ready to roll out the season. In fact, that remains Plan A, proceeding as though the season will take place on time next month.
For charities, though, it should be close to bottom-line-as-usual no matter what, according to Leeder. And that includes a pledge to Roger’s House, a palliative care facility that provides a home-like environment for terminally ill children and their families at critical stages of treatment. The home was named after Hall of Fame hockey coach Roger Neilson, a former Senators assistant coach who mentored and coached thousands of youngsters in baseball and hockey. Neilson died of cancer in 2003.
Leeder calls Roger’s House the charity most reliant on the Senators.
“It’s almost a million dollars this year, to make sure they can operate effectively,” Leeder said. “We told them in no uncertain terms, they don’t have to worry. We’ll make good on that.”
Whatever it takes. If, as expected, the NHL season is shortened or in the worse case scenario, lost altogether, as it was in 2004-05, charities will lose many player appearances (as arranged by the hockey club), and their 50-50 game night cash. To Leeder, that just means the club “has to work harder” to meet commitments.
Senators staff, including head coach Paul MacLean, who has no team to coach in a lockout, will be busy at various functions around town. Last week, the NHL club held a bottle drive for Roger’s House. This weekend it is one of the companies taking part in the 7th annual Plane Pull Challenge at the Ottawa airport. This, as opposed to anyone with the Senators actually getting on a plane for NHL business anytime soon – with the possible exception of general manager Bryan Murray, who still has a team of scouts to manage, and minor leaguers to monitor.
Individual players aligned with specific charities (eg. Chris Neil and Roger’s House) will do what is required, just as they did in 2004-05.
“Players aren’t going to leave them in the lurch,” Leeder said.
Most of the Senators charity work runs through its own Senators Foundation. Boldly, Leeder predicts the organization can match last year’s effort by the Foundation “and maybe then some.”