The absurd National Hockey League lockout is pitting ridiculously rich hockey players against insanely rich owners, so forgive me for my inability to see the human face affixed to this particular labour dispute.
But there are people being hurt, and not just the behind-the-scenes crowd, like the laid-off folks in the NHL front offices, or those who have been getting by working in the arenas or in the surrounding bars and restaurants that were so busy 40 nights a year.
Now, Aaron Gagnon is not exactly being forced to the bread line today. He’s doing all right playing hockey, pocketing 100 grand and change as a St. John’s IceCap.
But $400,000 is $400,000, which is how much Gagnon stands to lose if the NHL season is lost due to a preposterous fourth work shutdown in 20 years.
Gagnon was supposed to be on a one-way NHL contract this season, earning $525,000 from the Winnipeg Jets whether he was playing in the NHL or the American Hockey League (one-way contracts pay the player one set amount, whether he’s with the NHL club or in Buchans; two-way contracts pay one amount in the minors and another in the NHL).
Instead, the product of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is working on an AHL deal paying him $105,000, good coin but a far cry from the one-way dough he was set to pocket.
So much that new wing on the Kelowna condo for he and his new bride, huh?
“No,” he grinned this week during an IceCaps’ skate, “nothing’s really changed. I wasn’t getting a new car or anything ... none of that.
“I’m always looking to plan down the road because you never know how long you have in the league. We have a short career so whatever money you can make and save, you need to do so and not use it all up right now.”
Good thing Gagnon didn’t have the money tagged for a place down south or a boat, because if the lockout lasts, he’s out of luck.
Gagnon scored the contract in the summer of 2011 when the Jets signed him for two years as an unrestricted free agent.
It came after a 2010-11 season split between the Dallas Stars, where he appeared in 19 games, and the team’s AHL club in Austin, Texas.
The contract expires at the end of this season and, considering it will have been two straight years in the American league, chances are the phone won’t be ringing off the wall with general managers dangling one-way pacts.
Gagnon got married this past summer, and both he and Tzigahey figured they’d poke away a nice bit of money this season.
And then the doors were locked shut.
Watching it all unfold, Gagnon wonders if it can really be happening.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much what you’re thinking,” he says. “You work your life to get a one-way deal, and this comes and you’re sitting there watching it all unfold.
“But it is what it is, and it’s about everybody’s best interest. I’m one guy out of 700 in the league. There are a lot of deals in the future and this is about the future, not just this season only.”
Gagnon had a stellar season with the IceCaps last year, contributing 14 goals and 20 assists in 63 games. He impressed enough that he was recalled to the Jets for seven games.
He won’t be mistaken for Mike Bossy, but nonetheless is one of the IceCaps’ most complete players.
He is a player, St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge says, that won’t hurt you when he plays.
“He’s one of those guys,” McCambridge said at training camp, “that when he gets his opportunity at the NHL level, you can rely on him. When he went up there last year, the first thing talking to (Jets’ coach) Claude Noel was, wow, he really liked how reliable Gags was.”
Still only 26, Gagnon hopes to get back to The Show, whenever the curtain rises again, and this time for more than a bit part.
It’s what keeps him going, probably what keeps him from thinking about all that money he stands to lose the longer the lockout drags on.
“It is, for sure, a lot of money on the table, but the way I look at it is I want to be an NHL player, and I want to play there next year and for how ever many years after that,” he says.
“I’m not going to live my life on one deal. Hopefully I get a chance to prove myself, and it’s the next deal after that is what I’m worried about and looking for. If the lockout does go the whole year, what can you do? It’s all about how you approach it and how you take the next step and where you go from there.
“I’ve earned this contract and now I’ve got to go out and earn the next one.”
Gagnon has been following the NHL labour negotiations all summer, keeping up to date through the NHLPA’s smartphone app and attending an off-season NHLPA meeting in Kelowna, where he skates each summer with NHLers Shea Weber, Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley, Josh Gorges, Jordin Tootoo, Blake Comeau, Travis Moen and Wade Redden, who, up until this season, was collecting his $6.5-million yearly NHL salary from the New York Rangers even though the team had given up on him and banished him to the American league.
“I had a good year my last year in Dallas,” Gagnon said. “I had 20 games (21 actually) with the Stars and I thought I was ready to be in that spot (for an NHL contract). Winnipeg believed in me.”
If this season proves to be a wash, here’s hoping — for Gagnon’s sake — the Jets keep the faith.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org