"I'm fairly optimistic that we'll see hockey. I hope before Christmas, but I think worst-case scenario — I'm an optimistic person — I see at least a half a season."
That was Pat Lafontaine, speaking with the Buffalo News on Wednesday night. The Hockey Hall of Famer went through one work stoppage in 1994-95 under Commissioner Gary Bettman; after witnessing how Bettman's third lockout (hat trick!) has played out, Lafontaine said "I'm fairly optimistic you'll see some kind of agreement by Dec. 1."
He's not alone among former players, and he's not alone among current ones. For example, Mike Ribeiro had faith that we'll have hockey in December. Players we've spoken to behind the scenes have similar faith that "something will get done."
All of this would be encouraging, were it not for the fact that the other side of the negotiating table is about as pessimistic as a NY Times critic at Guy Fieri's NYC monstrosity, with similar levels of indigestion.
We don't hear all that much from the owners' side, because potential million dollar fines from the commissioner's office have a funny way of muzzling the outspoken. But what we have heard anonymously through media sources is the antithesis of the players' hopefulness.
Darren Dreger, from Wednesday:
From sickbay...players keep telling me they're optimistic a deal will get done, while owners tell me they have no confidence in that.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) November 14, 2012
One NHL owner I exchanged texts with Wednesday believed if next weekend (after U.S. Thanksgiving) came and went without a tentative deal, then it might be too late to save the season. I'm not so sure about that -- I mean, the league didn't cancel the entire season until February in 2004-05 and while I do believe the league won't wait that long this time, it's still too early to be jumping off the cliff. But the clock is ticking.
Still, that owner's belief tied into much of the doom and gloom that has come from the owners/league side over the last few days. How much of that is meant to be a scare tactic toward the players to get them to finally break? Tough to tell. Some of it surely is a message to players that time is of the essence. I also believe some of that anger/anxiety about a lost season is genuine.
There are pessimists on the players' side too. Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton worried about his career if a lockout went "a year or two", which is a horrific thought. More than a few players competing overseas have opined that this could be a lost season.
But in general terms, it seems like the players believe we'll play while the owners and GMs believe there's an increasing chance we won't.
So does that speak to …
PR Spin: In which the owners can't show an ounce of optimism while holding onto the notion that every percentage of revenue taken and every contractual demand agreed to is vital to the survival of the NHL.
Lack of Candor from the Owners: We don't really know what many of these guys are thinking because of Bettman's muzzle. You have Terry Pegula hoping the Buffalo Sabres play, and the Ottawa Senators doing market research on fan reaction when the team comes back. The doom and gloom might subside a bit with a few more of the voices on the record, but that won't happen with Gary Bettman running the mics.
The Players Feeling That the Owners Are Caving: The optics on the lockout, as orchestrated by the NHL, are that the owners have moved off their earlier demands and are the ones making concessions for a resolution. Given how tremendously daft their initial offer was, this is clearly a tactic; yet how many players feel we're inching toward an agreement because of it?
The Players Feel Don Fehr is There to Make a Deal: As LeBrun noted, the NHL is filled with execs worried that Don Fehr is concerned with taking down the economic system of the league and not the game itself; but that the players are confident he's just working to get the right deal. Point is, the players think he's trying to make a deal rather than leading them down the path of labor Armageddon.
Like the Rest of Us, the Players Can't Believe These Issues Will Cost Them a Season: If you read the comments from a player like Ribeiro, they seem to indicate both a level of optimism but also a higher level if disbelief. How could contract term or "make whole" cost the NHL a full season, as compared to the deep philosophical debates of seven years ago? How could the owners stomach the NHL's momentum coming to a halt over something like rookie salaries? How could the owners destroy their own revenue streams to fight increased revenue sharing?
For a lot of us, optimism is bred from astonishment that the lockout's gotten this far, over these issues. That we're just over a week away from what would have been the start of the NBC schedule, and there's no hockey to broadcast. That, in fact, the season could be on the brink.
The hopeful among us can't process this thing going to hell. Maybe we're disillusioned to the spin. Or maybe we're just delusional.