Crosby's, Pens' efforts to end lockout wasted
NEW YORK — Sidney Crosby would do it all again.
He would call Penguins majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle today if he thought they could help end an NHL lockout that, after a Thursday night collapse, has no end in sight.
“I didn't expect this,” Crosby told the Tribune-Review.
Three days of talks between the owners and union at the Westin Times Square began with a flourish but ended with an emphatic, emotional rejection of the players' final proposal by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners, most of whom were “as upset as I've ever seen them,” Bettman said.
No new talks were scheduled, Bettman and union chief Donald Fehr said, though neither would pronounce the 2012-13 season as being in jeopardy.
More games, likely the rest of December, could be canceled before this weekend.
Part of a Penguins-led power play to save the season, Crosby said he never broke ranks with his Players' Association and that no fellow players said they took issue that he and Burkle flew together from Los Angeles to New York in advance of these talks.
“It was never brought up,” Crosby said. “I have not done anything wrong. I don't see how anybody would have a reason to be mad.”
The sudden breakdown caught Crosby off guard. His face soured even as he stood behind reporters during Fehr's news conference.
He called the initial talks Tuesday and Wednesday “great, productive,” adding, “Ron carried a lot of the conversation. There was really good feedback — from both sides, from what I know.”
Burkle, Lemieux's primary ownership partner since their group purchased the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999, rarely addresses the media out of his position, but he put out a news release of 306 words, the last 10 resonating most with Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson.
“I hope that going backwards does not prevent a deal,” Burkle says.
Brisson said he thought the influence that comes with representing Crosby, being longtime friend to Lemieux, and his close ties with other owners of the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens — like the Penguins, a moderate in this labor dispute — could jump-start talks that stalled Nov. 29 after two days of federally mediated bargaining.
Owners of the Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs joined talks with players this week, and there was enough progress on Day 1 that union special counsel Steve Fehr said Tuesday, “This is our best day so far.”
Brisson said his conversations with Burkle over the previous two days convinced him Thursday morning that a new labor contract would be finalized, at least in principle, by Friday.
“I was shocked — everybody was — to see it go this way,” he said.
Crosby said he wanted to let “this sink in” before he started “seriously considering my other options,” notably playing in Europe. His plan is to resume practicing with Penguins teammates at Southpointe next week, but signing with a club in Switzerland now looms as a possibility, he said.
Brisson said an expected next round of canceled games would not impact Crosby's decision. He also said Crosby will not represent Team Canada or any team at the Spengler Cup, a Swiss tournament held annually between Christmas and New Year's.
Crosby said signing with a Swiss club is not the message he wants to send to players, owners or fans.
“It's not the insurance or any concern about my head, or any other reason that I believe we're too close not to do a deal,” he said. “Nothing has changed my mind on that, and I still do. But I'm going to play hockey somewhere this season. I want it to be in Pittsburgh. That's what this week was about for me.”
The scene at the Westin became more dramatic throughout the day.
As of Wednesday night, according to Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, the players “thought we had the makings of a deal” and invested Thursday morning toward a formal proposal to close it out.
According to Fehr, the union accepted the owners' wishes related to “all dollar values.” But they balked at two items in particular:
• The owners, at the behest of Burkle, pushed for a 10-year term for the labor agreement in hopes of securing longstanding labor peace to rebuild confidence in the NHL brand among fans, sponsors and networks.
When the union resisted, it was amended to eight years, with a six-year opt-out clause for either side.
Fehr stuck by the original five years, insisting that “it's not fair to the next generation of players to not have their own say.”
• The owners are demanding contract term limits of seven years for players staying with their current team, five years for free agents.
Fehr balks at them entirely, and he cited Crosby's 12-year, $104.4 million contract as an example of one that was struck in a manner befitting both team and player.
The owners' response — delivered to Fehr via voicemail from deputy commissioner Bill Daly — was a resounding no. But the real response was evident hours earlier when owners began leaving for the airport, just a day after they had vowed to see the process through.
Daly pinpointed the contract term limits as “the hill we'll die on.”
Fehr and Bettman conducted passionate news conferences, Fehr doing two — one before learning of Daly's voicemail in which he buoyantly predicted a “deal could be coming soon,” then another after the rejection in which he called it “inexplicable” that the owners responded as they did.
Bettman was even more animated, visibly agitated and raising his voice in expressing exasperation with the union.
“I am disappointed beyond belief at where we are,” Bettman said. “We're going to take a deep breath and look at where we are.”
Bettman reiterated that there is no drop-dead date for the season to be canceled.