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Sunday hockey notes

Did their lessened deal teach players anything?

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / January 22, 2012
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A couple of weeks after obstructing the NHL’s wishes to realign for 2012-13, the Players Association made nice with the league Friday and resolved a disagreement over some revenue, including the $25 million-$50 million the city of Glendale, Ariz., will have funneled to the cash drawers to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix the last two seasons.

The league and the NHLPA jointly announced that resolution, though offered no details as to how the dollars ultimately will factor into the 57 percent share of hockey-related revenues the players are entitled to under the collective bargaining agreement.

But it’s encouraging, with the CBA expiring Sept. 15, that the sides can agree on something, especially when it was obvious that the NHLPA kiboshed realignment simply as a means of setting a stake in the CBA battlefield.

The sides are finally going to sit down in about 10 days, following the upcoming weekend’s All-Star festivities in Ottawa, to begin preliminary discussions on a new labor deal. The date, time, and place have not been set, but by Feb. 1 or 2, the arm wrestling will have begun, even if it’s only a preliminary handshake and hamburger between commissioner Gary Bettman and union executive director Donald Fehr. Let the games begin.

Let me be among the first to admit that I have no clue where this is going, which is the read I’m getting from talking with folks on both sides of the aisle. Having covered both lockouts and one player strike, I’ve learned only that common sense ultimately prevails in these things, but often at an uncommon price.

If fans weren’t so forgiving (and addicted?), maybe the nonsense would stop and both sides would simply maintain and adjust their work document on an ongoing basis. But that would be far too logical. What fun would that be for the lawyers and TV executives who ultimately run the games we love to watch?

The players paid a steep price in the last kerfuffle, losing all of their 2004-05 wages, and then taking a 24 percent discount on individual contracts written before the lockout, because union leadership misjudged ownership’s resolve.

Then union boss Bob Goodenow, who didn’t believe the owners would call his bluff and wipe out the season, was canned soon after the smoke finally cleared. In the months of turmoil, he refused to believe he could do anything but win, which he had done from his first day on the job as the union’s executive director, and that hubris ended up costing his rank-and-file some $1.5 billion in wages.

The players’ collective weight, divided into $2 billion, made hubris a very pricy cut of meat.

Seven-plus years later, the key issues are much the same. But the great unknown here is whether Fehr will try to extract a string of small victories around a retooling of the current document, a salary cap its foundation, or whether he’ll refuse to accept the cap that Goodenow said he would never stomach. Hand in hand with that cap, of course, is that key 57 percent figure, the players’ cut of all dollars the sport generates.

Major League Baseball, Fehr’s former world, does not have a cap, and the players’ total take isn’t made public. This year’s NBA lockout ended with the players’ take rolled back to 51.2 percent, and the mega-rich NFL has players pocketing 47 cents from every buck. Again, no knowing, but with both the NBA and NFL working with numbers a few pegs below 57 percent, it would not be a surprise to hear NHL owners bargain for, shall we say, a discount.

To win that cap in the summer of 2005, the owners caved on free agency, allowing players to take their talents to the open market typically by their mid-20s. Previously, players had to be 31 to go shopping, and by that time most of the wheels had fallen from their career carts. If the NHLPA this time wants to amend or obliterate the cap, the owners will push back on free agency, pegging unrestricted free agent age higher into the twentysomethings, or over 30. It’s likely they also would look to gain relief on guaranteed contracts.

As of Friday morning, 884 players had suited up in the NHL this season. Of that bunch, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, 273 had NHL contracts on Sept. 15, 2004, the day the last CBA expired. Only 202 of those players had logged more than 50 NHL games entering the year that never happened.

What we know for sure, all these years later, is that 202 voices - including Bruins such as Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton, and Joe Corvo - had their careers up and running before the last lockout. So while Bettman and Fehr are in control of the negotiations around a new document, it falls to all players, especially those 202, to realize this time that they can control their lives and the negotiating process.

The vast majority of them last time remained clueless about the talks, figuring the owners would cave, and that their life in an industry based on fantasy would remain one leisurely stroll down Main Street, Disneyland. What a lesson they learned. Or did they?

Even warmups can be unsafe

HAZARDOUS AREA
Rarely do serious injuries occur during pregame warmups, but the odds weren’t smiling on Taylor Hall prior to his Oilers facing off against the Blue Jackets Tuesday in Columbus.

Hall, the top pick in the 2010 draft, sustained a 30-stitch gash to his forehead when he tripped on a puck, collided with teammate Ladislav Smid, then was gashed by one of Edmonton defenseman Corey Potter’s skates.

“A little Botox up there and he’ll be fine,’’ said Oiler veteran Shawn Horcoff.

Most of Hall’s teammates weren’t as cavalier, noting how frightening it was to witness blood spurting from the open wounds.

Hall, once repaired by an on-site plastic surgeon, wanted to play, but Oiler management decided it was best to give the 20-year-old the night off.

When the shootout was added to the NHL game menu as part of the 2004-05 lockout settlement, players voted down the idea of participating in it without wearing their helmets. Too dangerous, they said.

To this day, shooters keep their lids on for the one-on-one drill. But overall, the shootout is significantly less dangerous than pregame warmups, which have at least 40 players on the ice at once, each team buzzing around one end of the ice, shooters often ringing shots off crossbars and posts.

Stalberg finds scoring touch

ON FIRE IN CHICAGO
Ex-University of Vermont star Viktor Stalberg (left), who departed the Burlington campus in the spring of 2009, is riding high these days on Chicago’s top trio with center/captain Jonathan Toews and right winger Patrick Kane.

Entering last night’s game, he had 29 points in 45 games, including his first career hat trick Jan. 10 vs. Columbus.

The Maple Leafs made Stalberg the 161st pick in the 2006 draft and wanted to keep him - imagine him on the Phil Kessel/Joffrey Lupul line today? - but the Blackhawks pried him out of Toronto when they had to offload Kris Versteeg’s salary in June 2010.

Stalberg is big (6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds), and if his confidence keeps rising on the Toews-Kane line, he could develop into a rare Swedish power forward (no offense to Detroit’s Johan “The Mule’’ Franzen).

Blues make winning music

ETC.
The pecking order in the standings changes hour by hour, but Ken Hitchcock’s renaissance Blues held the No. 1 spot overall for a few hours at the start of the week. If Hitch keeps this up, he will breeze to the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year. Thursday night’s 1-0 blanking of Edmonton was the fourth shutout in six games for the Blues. They had not allowed a third-period goal in 10 straight games. On Hitch’s wish list for the second half: grittier goals and even tighter defense, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contenders, said Hitch, “ramp up the areas that frustrate the hell out of the opposition.’’ That was certainly true of the great Edmonton teams, especially come playoff time. As sensational as the Oilers were on offense, they knew how to button it down in the postseason, a penchant that punched goalie Grant Fuhr’s ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Voice from above

Nothing like a healthy dose of winning to flush owners out of hiding. With his Rangers sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, Blueshirts owner Jim Dolan made his way to coach John Tortorella’s postgame presser Tuesday following a 3-0 win over Nashville. It was the first time Dolan had been heard from since the 2005-06 season, and amid his constant praise of general manager Glen Sather, who came to Broadway 11-plus years ago, Dolan pronounced his team to be Cup-ready. “That’s a bunch of b.s.,’’ the forever tart Tortorella quickly told the media corps. “We need to take one day at a time.’’ Forty-eight hours later, the Penguins rubbed out the Rangers, 4-1, at Madison Square Garden.

Sabre rattling

Sabres fans, once convinced that Terry Pegula’s ownership and some pricy offseason acquisitions would be an EZ pass to Cup contention, are clamoring for a change as the club slips deeper in the Eastern Conference standings. Putting the bellows to the fire of their discontent, NBC commentator Jeremy Roenick followed Monday’s 5-0 loss in Detroit by saying, “I think it’s time either that the goaltender [Ryan Miller] gets traded or the coach [Lindy Ruff] needs to get fired or they need a new GM [currently Darcy Regier).’’ Hat trick! And his studio sidekick, ex-Boston coach Mike Keenan, marveled that Ruff remained on the job despite his Sabres not winning a playoff round over the last four years (including two DNQs). Pegula believes the failure is related to a long list of injuries, and noted that he wants to “put Humpty together again.’’ Ruff is a solid coach, but that might not matter, even if Pegula extended his deal upon assuming ownership. The biggest issue is that the Sabres overpaid to bring in a bunch of B-listers - including Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, and Robyn Regehr - expecting “A’’ results.

If the hat fits . . .

Just as the Bruins awarded their funky working-man’s jacket after each win last season, the Rangers this year have bestowed the “Broadway Hat’’ to one player in their dressing room after each victory. It’s a frumpy black fedora, with stylish bow and ribbon, believed to have been purchased by newcomer Brad Richards when the club opened the season in Sweden. Following each win, the player awarded the hat from the previous victory is obligated to select the new recipient. Former St. Sebastian’s star Brian Boyle told the New York Times last week that the new tradition underscores the tight bond that exists in the dressing room. Part of the tradition: The winner is obligated to wear it during all postgame interviews. In Boston, the jacket was formally retired Oct. 6, opening night at the Garden, when teammates presented it to Mark Recchi to keep the retired winger warm while rocking on his porch.

Take it to the House

The next site of the Winter Classic is perennially one of the worst-kept secrets in all of sports. And as widely rumored the last two weeks, it’s now a done deal: The Red Wings and Maple Leafs will face off Jan. 1, 2013, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. It’s the first time the Classic will pair US and Canadian clubs, with NBC convinced that the spectacle of the Big House will be enough for an American audience to drop its alleged appetite for US-only clubs. Frankly, I don’t think US viewers care about the countries of origin represented in those sweaters. Wings owner Mike Ilitch had hoped the game would be in downtown Detroit at Comerica Park, home to his Tigers, but the NHL salivated over the thought of packing in 110,000-plus. The league will drop another sheet at Comerica, which will be used for a bunch of games, including a Wings-Leafs alumni matchup. Michigan-Michigan State drew a crowd of 113,411 for a college hockey game at the Big House in December 2010. The first Winter Classic, held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Jan. 1, 2008, drew 71,217.

Loose pucks

Devils icon Martin Brodeur, who will turn 40 May 6, sounded as if he’d like to play at least one more season, telling the Newark Star Ledger, “I’m leaning towards it.’’ And the No. 1 reason the all-time winningest goaltender might want a redux? “I think I’m having fun,’’ he said. If you are having fun, do you have to think about it? . . . The much bigger deal around Newark is whether the Devils will be able to come up with a pay figure that will appease unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Zach Parise, represented nowadays by Wade Arnott, agent for former Bruin Phil Kessel. No telling how, or if, a new CBA will shift the pay scale, but Parise likely can expect an offer of, say, $8 million a year over a stretch of 6-9 years. The Bruins could have nabbed Parise in the 2003 draft, but instead got creative with their pick - ultimately No. 21, used for Mark Stuart - and the Devils grabbed Parise at No. 17 . . . Ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler, now one of Stuart’s teammates with the Jets, had to leave last Saturday’s game against the Devils in Winnipeg when he was nailed in the throat by a Petr Sykora slap shot. Wheeler was rushed to a hospital, and released when X-rays of his throat and neck came out clean. Entering last night’s game, Wheeler led all Jets scorers with a line of 9-24-33 . . . Ex-Boston College Eagle Jimmy Hayes is getting comfortable with the Blackhawks. Called up from Rockford (AHL) just before the new year, the 6-6 right winger was 4-3-7 in 11 games entering last night after connecting for a goal and assist Wednesday vs. Buffalo. Hayes was a Leafs pick (No. 60, 2008), but was flipped to Chicago two years ago for a second-round pick . . . The Lightning looked a little better with their win Tuesday over the Bruins, but their net is leaking and, absent a trade, they may have no choice but to summon 22-year-old Dustin Tokarski from the minors . . . It’s not a question of if but when the Oilers will deal veteran right winger Ales Hemsky. He is carrying a $4.1 million cap hit, which means interested clubs will let the Oilers pay down that salary as much as possible before the Feb. 27 trade deadline . . . Wild defenseman Justin Falk was born in Snowflake, Manitoba, just over the US border, a town where no two people look alike.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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