Nearly everything about the day after Labor Day weekend cried out ‘business as usual.’
The first sign: Heavier than usual morning traffic — including hundreds of vehicles delivering (mostly) eager children to their first day of school. For older kids, the weekend “homework” was making the final NFL fantasy league picks in time for this week’s season launch (what a joy it must be to follow a league that has a firm schedule).
In that other football league, CFL teams are sorting out who is contending and pretending after the traditional Labour Day weekend games (fast forward a couple of years, and there could once again be an Ottawa-Montreal game in the Labour Day mix).
Almost with the flick of a switch, September means football of all kinds, including high school teams limbering up for another season. College football is already nicely underway, north and south of the border, although the Ottawa Gee-Gees clearly didn’t get the memo about when the season starts, judging by their blowout loss to Windsor.
There are other familiar cues to coincide with summer’s unofficial end: Minor hockey tryouts are in the rear view mirror for many AA and AAA teams, while junior leagues east and west are making roster decisions and set to launch later this month.
Baseball’s wild card races, though they sadly don’t include the Toronto Blue Jays, will keep seamheads going all month long, and into October when the real fun begins. Baltimore vs. Washington anyone?
Most of the above serve as comforting reminders of the transition we all make at this time of year, out of summer mode and into work and school mode. Everywhere, there signs of changing leaves and shifting gears, renewed focus, except for your friendly neighbourhood NHL, where the buzz is about what is not happening.
“Why couldn’t the CFL have a lockout instead,” one young hockey fan said to me the other day, wishing he might swap a pending NHL lockout for a CFL stoppage, presumably throwing “future considerations” in the deal.
Hockey business is always slow in the first September days, but with a growing sense that another great journey is about to begin, not the dread of another season interrupted, possibly lost altogether, as it was in 2004-05.
In keeping with the year-round nature of today’s NHL, informal skates in August and September had verged on being full participation practices in recent years, complete with the first media scrums of the season. And while players had to train as usual this summer, even as CBA clouds loomed, the late summer skates have lost their urgency. Instead of planning for upcoming training camps, players are thinking about lockout contingencies, as the clock ticks down to Sept. 15 and the expiration of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement.
My own sense is that talks won’t become meaningful until the real pressure points kick in. For players, that is when they start missing pay cheques. Skipping training camp and the pre-season? No problem. For owners, the pressure points vary, if they feel them at all. Some owners of U.S. franchises are more than happy to give up October dates when the competition from NFL, college football and baseball is fierce and hockey gates are a challenge.
In Canada, fans would buy tickets to a summertime water polo match between the Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, and so it hurts teams even to miss out on pre-season dates, let alone regular season games in October.
But it doesn’t hurt enough to put urgency into the collective talks. It could take weeks before the sides are remotely close enough on terms of a deal, including the length of CBA and agreement on how to divide revenues, that the process can find traction.
What we’ve seen so far is an owners-from-Venus and players-from-Mars kind of scenario that hasn’t been productive.
Sadly, for fans who care more about who’s playing centre and starting in goal for their favourite team than they do about NHL economics, the urgency seems to be all theirs, not yet shared by the parties that can get the deal done.
Over the weekend, a 21-year-old Finnish video editor named Janne Makkonen launched an eight and a half minute hockey montage that has been a spectacular hit on YouTube — more than 300,000 views.
I dare you to watch without catching a goosebump or two. For Makkonen portrays the players in their more familiar role as hockey heroes, mythic figures, not those uncomfortable-looking business people we see at the CBA meeting updates. Teemu Selanne crying tears of joy, Ray Bourque finally hoisting the Stanley Cup — this is real, this is hockey, this is what fuels fan fires.
Will it make a difference in negotiations? Probably not, but unlike last time around, fans have social media with which to vent during the process. They will be heard, they will not pull punches, and now they have the ‘Together We Can’ #nolockout video as a happy escape from CBA hell.