An inside look at how Lemieux, Pens tried to save NHL season
Where was Mario?
Until the past week, hockey fans in Pittsburgh and worldwide had wondered why Mario Lemieux hadn't been involved in an NHL labor war that shut down the franchise he owns, that sent one of the Penguins' stars to Russia, that kept the other from playing at all, and that was doing untold damage to the local economy.
There were reasons, and the biggest was the time to strike had to be perfect.
“Mario does not just do things; he considers everything,” said NHL agent Pat Brisson, a Lemieux friend dating to their days as competitors in the Quebec Major Junior league in the early 1980s.
“We have been talking for a long time about what we can do to get the league back. Mario, myself, we could not sit back and watch without trying something. The timing had to be on our side.”
The NHL and its Players' Association do not have a new labor contract. An owners' lockout of players is in its 85th day. It cannot be argued that a Penguins-led power play of moderate owners and players over three days in New York this week went perfectly.
The moderates' did not fail, either, despite the expected rhetoric from NHL and NHLPA executives when talks broke Thursday night.
There are many reasons to believe an NHL season will happen. If so, history may view Lemieux's timing was perfect after all.
Big Apple movement
Frustrated fans and sponsors should not pay much attention to anything said by Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr, then NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after talks broke Thursday. Those men would have the hockey world believe hope, if not lost, is fading fast.
Hope is alive, to the degree that the NHL has yet to cancel games past Dec. 14.
That is because with neither Fehr nor Bettman in the room, owners and players pretty much figured out an end to this labor war on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Word that a deal was near spread fast after Day 2 of meetings. Evgeni Malkin, in Russia, was advised to be ready for an NHL training camp around Dec. 15. NHL referee Steve Walkom, in Pittsburgh, was told to prepare for a Dec. 21 opening night.
Math is no longer a big issue between the NHL and NHLPA - and math had been The Issue. Future revenue will be split 50/50, and players will get at least $300 million to honor current contacts. Players may get more than that $300 million, too - if they are willing to agree on a 10-year labor contact that gives owners the option of opting out.
The big-buzz sticking point is contract term limits. Owners crave restrictions that will prevent them from massively overspending to keep their own players or sign free agents. Players, understandably, do not favor rules that impose limitations for what owners can spend.
If a second NHL season is lost in eight years because of contract limits, then the Sports & Exhibition Authority should start looking for a new main tenant at Consol Energy Center, because the league the Penguins play in will not been seen again.
But the NHL is poised to survive this latest ugly labor war, and mostly because of momentum generated this past week by the NHL and NHLPA moderates.
Lemieux was stung eight years ago when he and fellow NHL icon Wayne Gretzky tried at the last minute to save the 2004-05 season. He thought their reputations, and unique positions as players-turned-owners, could help the NHL better reach union players.
That move blew up in his face, perhaps because Lemieux and Gretzky made it only after Bettman had canceled the 2004-05 season and because NHLPA leadership masterfully painted the two former players as one of them.
Lemieux made two calculated decisions before this lockout began Sept. 15:
He would not wait until it was too late to get involved. Also, he would build a collation so that he would not become the story, or ammunition for NHLPA leadership.
There was always a perception among players that the lockout would end by Thanksgiving, certainly in time for games to begin Dec. 1. When it became clear by mid-November that was not going to happen, and that another season may be lost, agents began hearing concerns from clients.
Agents have skin in this dispute because their clients are not getting paid.
Brisson, who represents many NHL stars, including Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, made a suggestion to Lemieux around Thanksgiving.
“We talked, and we agreed that maybe now we should try something,” he said. “What was our choice, to sit back and watch the season die?”
Lemieux was in, but on the condition that he not be front and center.
French Canadian connections
Lemieux began working the phones, starting with Ron Burkle, his Penguins majority co-owner and a multi-billionaire with shelves full of awards from various labor organizations.
There was a joint effort by Lemieux and Brisson to get other NHL franchises, ones not identified as hard-line supporters such as Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and Minnesota's Craig Leipold, on board. The Penguins called on support from Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik, whose NHL world view in a non-traditional market with a young franchise star (Steven Stamkos) is similar to that of the Lemieux-Burkle ownership group.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, with Luc Robitaille as president of business operations, and the huge-revenue Montreal Canadiens, with Marc Bergevin as the general manager, each were instant allies. Their owners wanted to play before guaranteed packed arenas, and Robitaille and Bergevin were friends of Lemieux and Brisson dating three decades.
This French Canadian Connection of Lemieux, Brisson, Robitaille and Bergevin gathered speed, and helped sweep aboard ownership groups in Toronto and Winnipeg, the NHL's biggest and smallest Canadian markets.
There is no coincidence that the Penguins, Lightning, Maple Leafs and Jets were the four new franchises the NHL sent into a room with players this week in New York.
Federally mediated talks between the NHL and NHLPA broke on Nov. 29. Bettman suggested a meeting between owners and players that would not include either he or Fehr - each man a lightning rod for resentment and distrust at that point in the process.
Before those federally mediated talks stalled, Bettman already had been informed by Burkle that the Penguins wanted a position at the bargaining table; that he, not Lemieux, would take the seat; and that other moderate voices wanted to be heard.
Lemieux and Brisson had provided Burkle with a list of names if Bettman asked.
Crosby goes to work
Brisson started leaning his highest profile NHL players, including vocal anti-owner Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. Brisson looked for signals as to who he could count upon.
Crosby did not need convincing. Frustrated by having played in just 28 games over 22 months because of concussion symptoms, he wanted to play - and play in the NHL.
“I don't see how anybody would have a reason to be mad,” Crosby said. “We're talking about saving the season. It's worth it to try.”
Crosby banked on commanding respect from more reasonable players because of his public and behind-the-scenes involvement with the NHLPA since the summer. He believed he was not viewed by most as the usual big-money player who avoided messy labor dealings.
He made phone calls. Convinced there were players eager to hear from other owners, he traveled on the week after Thanksgiving to speak in person with a large group of players training in Arizona.
His objective was to get players to New York for a meeting with owners, and to have them keep an open mind if new owners were allowed in the room. He did not promise a deal would be made if players, without Fehr, met owners, without Bettman. Never make that promise, Brisson advised.
This was a risky move for Crosby, who was told by some players that veterans of past lockouts might question his close ties to Lemieux, with whom he lived for the early part of his seven-year career.
Shane Doan, the respected veteran captain with Phoenix, told Crosby on that Arizona trip that he would back any effort that could spark talks. Again, it was about trying to save the season - and maybe the NHL, Doan said.
“Sid's just the face of the whole NHL,” Doan said. “He makes our case by just doing such a good representing the league. And the league is not just the players; it's the owners, it's everybody.”
Crosby and Brisson met last weekend in Los Angeles. On Monday, they flew with Burkle to New York, where they met Lemieux, Penguins general manager Ray Shero, CEO David Morehouse and COO Travis Williams.
Crosby split soon upon arriving to meet with players, including Doan and Toews.
Lemieux and Brisson caught up with Robitaille and Bergevin, and Burkle strategized with Vinik.
The time to strike was approaching.
The chance to save the NHL season was the only thing a stake.