TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Hockey League and locked out players called a time out on their rancorous labor negotiations on Monday, allowing the hockey spotlight to shine on the induction of Pavel Bure, Mats Sundin, Adam Oates and Joe Sakic into the Hall of Fame.
With the lockout lurching towards two months and talks on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) stalled, the hockey world was left to celebrate its past accomplishments of four former-greats while surveying a bleak future and the prospects of a second lost NHL season in eight years.
A sobering reminder of what a lost season means was there for all to see at the Grand Hall: the words “2004-05 Season Not Played” stamped coldly into the Stanley Cup where the names of the winners would have been engraved.
“Hopefully hockey will be played shortly,” said Sakic, whose name appears twice on the Cup, helping the Colorado Avalanche to the title in 1996 and 2001. “It (a lockout) hurts everybody. It hurts the players, it hurts the owners, it hurts the fans. It hurts the game.”
While the inductees did their best to ignore the lockout, the labor dispute hung over the Hall of Fame festivities like a dark cloud.
Among the hundreds of games already wiped off the schedule was Friday’s Hall of Fame game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New Jersey Devils, leaving a Legends game featuring old-timers and past and present inductees on Sunday as the only opportunity for fans to honor this year’s Hall of Fame class.
There was also no good news out of New York where the NHL and the NHL players association (NHLPA) had huddled for six days trying to hammer out a new deal before talks broke off on Sunday with another blast of finger-pointing.
With no talks scheduled, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were both expected to attend Monday evening’s official ceremonies.
“I want it to get over with. Everyone wants it over,” said Oates, whose debut as head coach of the Washington Capitals is on hold until the lockout is settled. “I‘m no different but you have to have a mature outlook about it and I do.”
Away from the acrimonious negotiations and squabbling over billions of dollars of hockey related revenue, Sakic, Bure, Oates and Sundin reminded everyone that behind it all hockey is still just a game.
From Toronto to Moscow to Stockholm and Washington, each of the inductees reflected on the paths and people that helped them realize their childhood dreams that took them to a place in the hockey shrine.
Bure, the Russian Rocket, lit up the NHL with his blazing speed and skill, five times scoring more than 50 goals in a season, accepted his ring as his mother looked on proudly from the gallery.
While Bure was the explosive Russian sniper, Oates was the gifted setup man.
Undrafted, a dogged Oates would go onto play 19 NHL season’s collecting 1,079 assists, leaving him sixth on the all-time list.
In contrast, Sakic was a can’t miss first round pick of the Quebec Nordiques and remained with the franchise, that later became the Colorado Avalanche, his entire career, winning two Stanley Cups, a Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player and a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
Like most Canadians, the first people Oates and Sakic thanked were their mothers and fathers, who like many hockey parents spent many cold mornings shuttling their kids to games and practices.
“My Dad,” answered Oates, without hesitation when asked who was his biggest influence. “I was a cocky kid and he said, when I didn’t get drafted, I had to start working harder and figure it out.”
Sundin, who waited out two NHL work stoppages, spent most of his career as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and remains one of the hockey mad city’s most popular athletes.
The stoic Swede, knows better than most how much hockey means to Toronto and the impact the current dispute is having on the fans.
“It’s sad, as a former player but more importantly as a hockey fan, it’s obviously very disappointing,” said Sundin, the first Swede to score more than 500 goals and 1,000 points in a career.
“I think all hockey fans deserve to have the NHL going on so hopefully both parties can get to the table and get a deal as soon as possible.”
Editing by Julian Linden