Daniel Cleary remembers the lost season of 2004-05, when a lockout shut down the entire NHL season. And he remembers the fear amongst players, owners and just about everyone else involved with the game, a concern whether the fans would return to the rinks when the labour dispute ended.
Well, seven years later and the NHL, argues Cleary, has never been more successful. Parity reigns amongst the teams, an average NHLer is making $1 million a year, or more, and league revenues have reportedly risen from roughly $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion.
Last season, 16 of the 30 NHL teams had 100 per cent attendance at home. Another five teams had their buildings 95 per cent full on home dates.
So why, then, does the NHL and its Players Association appear on a collision course towards another work stoppage?
“We’re far apart,” said Cleary, the Detroit Red Wings veteran forward, this weekend.
“We (the owners and players) have completely different views on how the hockey world should operate. Gary (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) wants it to be tight, we want it to be loose and flexible for GMs and owners, but still haven a cap in place.”
Cleary, from Riverhead, Harbour Grace, was in town the past couple of weeks running his Danny Cleary Hockey School at Jack Byrne Arena in Torbay.
Skating with the youngsters, you get the feeling it might be the only hockey Cleary will see for a while.
While Henrik Zetterberg is the Red Wings’ player representative on the NHLPA, Cleary has been closely following the talks involving the players union and the owners, if only, he says, because it’s easy for him to travel to New York or Toronto from his off-season home in Michigan.
“The key is going to be the revenue sharing,” he said. “That’s a big one for us. We’re willing to give up a percentage of the hockey-related revenue, so we’ll see what the owners come back with.”
In a nutshell, NHL owners would like to see the players relinquish a fair sum of salary to stabilize the industry, while the NHLPA maintains the owners would be better served by having the rich ones in Toronto, Philadelphia, New York and Detroit, for example, prop up the struggling franchises like Florida and Dallas.
All this may be hard for the ordinary hockey fan to comprehend, the same fan who has to pay an average of $123.77 per ticket in Toronto, or $98.27 in Winnipeg, $70.13 in Edmonton or $66.20 in New York City.
Mind you, these are average prices. While the nosebleeds at Madison Square Garden may be a manageable $50 a seat, the cheapest ticket in the lower bowl is $114.
So, is the NHL getting a point where another work stoppage could lead to a fan backlash, to a point where the ticket-buying public will be more apt to watch the NHL Network in high def at home than pay upwards of $300 for a night out for two at the hockey rink?
“I would say no, it’s not going to matter,” Cleary says matter-of-factly. “And I don’t say that flippantly. Based on what happened with the last lockout, the hockey loyalty and the passion came back with the players.
“Here we are now and the game has never been better.
“I remember the last lockout and there was concern about clubs then and here we are seven years later and we’ve grown the business by $1.1 billion. The league is in the best state it’s ever been in, right now, for fans and parity. I mean, the eighth seed wins the Cup. You can legitimately cheer for almost 20 clubs — two-thirds of the league — and you have a good chance at winning. That’s good for the fans.
“But I am concerned. The last thing we want is a lockout, but the second-last thing we want is contraction. Relocation is okay, but contraction is something we don’t want to get into.”
Ironically enough, Cleary could probably benefit from a delayed start to the season.
He’s entering the final year of a five-year, $14 million contract and he’s coming off knee surgery in early May.
Cleary managed only 12 goals and 33 points last season, his lowest point production in his seven years in Motown. Still, the fact Cleary was even able to appear in 75 games was a credit to the 33-year-old veteran, who might be in line for an assistant captain’s appointment whenever hockey resumes, given the retirement of captain Niklas Lidstrom.
Cleary had two previous arthroscopic surgeries on his left knee, but last spring went under the knife to repair two torn ligaments which left him skating bone on bone. During the surgery, a ball of fluid the size of a squash ball was removed from behind the knee.
“It was my first invasive surgery, but I’m on the mend. Every time I’m on the ice, my skating is getting better. I’m hoping to be ready to go for camp, if we start.”
Whenever the league gets going, it will be a different Red Wings team to which fans have grown accustomed. First and foremost, there will no longer be the rock-solid Lidstrom, a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer. And reliable Brad Stuart was dealt to the San Jose Sharks in June after requesting a trade to be closer to his family in California.
So that leaves Niklas Kronwall as the Red Wings’ No. 1 rearguard, with support coming from former St. John’s Maple Leaf Ian White and Jonathan Ericsson. Others figuring to fill out the blueline are Kyle Quincey, Jakub Kindl and rookie Brendan Smith, a former first-round draft pick.
Red Wings’ GM Ken Holland has been working the phone lines to acquire Jay Bouwmeester from the Calgary Flames or Keith Yandle from the Phoenix Coyotes.
“I don’t know. I’m a little nervous,” Cleary admitted. “I never had that uncertainty before. I know we have an all-star goalie (Jimmy Howard), I know we have talented forwards, and we have a couple of solid defensemen.
“But there is some uncertainty ... can Smith and Kindl step up and play 18-20 minutes? We have huge minutes to replace in Lidstrom and Stuart.”
In the meantime, if Cleary and the Red Wings do not agree on a new contract this season, he will become an unrestricted free agent next July. Ironically enough, fellow Newfoundlanders Ryane Clowe (San Jose), Michael Ryder (Dallas) and Adam Pardy (Buffalo) are also set to become UFAs next year.
“Clowie’s going to sign,” Cleary said, before adding with a smile, “and he wants me to go to San Jose. We’ll have to see what Rydes is doing.”