Mathieu Darche and P.K. Subban enjoy a light moment during an NHLPA meeting recently.
Former Canadiens forward Mathieu Darche has been playing a key role in the NHLPA’s talks with the NHL in a bid to produce a new collective bargaining agreement, the current CBA expiring on Sept. 15. Without a new deal in place, it’s likely the NHL will lock out the players and create a work stoppage that will postpone the start of training camps and who knows how much of the 2012-13 season.
Two pieces on Darche, an unrestricted free agent who was cut loose by the Habs after spending three seasons with his hometown team:
• Darche on the CBA negotiating process, as seen from the inside as a member of the NHLPA’s negotiating committee;
And below, Darche on his own future and how he’s spent his summer, training to be ready for a contract offer he hopes will soon come:
Better than many NHL players, veteran Mathieu Darche thoroughly understands the landscape of his league. And that’s why he’s not entirely surprised that he remains a still-unsigned unrestricted free agent two months after being cut loose by his hometown Canadiens.
“Once I didn’t (sign somewhere) in the first week or so, I kind of got the sense that it would happen after the new CBA got done,” said Darche, a deeply involved member of the NHLPA committee that is talking – sometimes – with the NHL in a bid to produce a new collective bargaining agreement.
“Teams are waiting,” he said. “I have a friend in management (with an NHL team) who told me, ‘Unless something out of this world comes up, we’re not going to do anything until there’s a new CBA.’
“I talked with some teams in early July and came close with one. For some reason it didn’t work out. I wish I’d been signed right away but then again, it’s nothing I can control. (Fellow UFAs) Brendan Morrison, Jason Arnott and Dominic Moore are still unsigned. I’ve looked at rosters and there are still spots on a few. We’ll see what the future brings.”
In as many words, Darche was told by the Canadiens in late June that he was unwanted after having spent the past three seasons in Montreal.
The Habs pretty much made the 35-year-old an offer he had no choice but to refuse – a two-way deal that, should he keep a Canadiens roster spot, would pay him less than the $700,000 he earned last year.
If Darche was the victim of a numbers game and wound up demoted to the farm in Hamilton, he would earn the maximum $105,000 that his situation dictates.
Supporting his wife, Stéphanie, who is back at school completing her Master’s degree in international business, and their sons Samuel, 9, and Benjamin, 7, Darche wasn’t prepared to roll the dice and perhaps wind up down Highway 401 away from his family, renting a second home, riding minor-league buses and earning a fraction of what he did last season.
A popular, thoughtful, fluently bilingual member of the Canadiens who figured largely in the team’s community charity programs, Darche was and remains deeply saddened by his quiet exit from the team he worshipped as a boy.
Especially painful is the fact the native of St. Laurent was sidelined the final 21 games of last season with a concussion that he originally believed was an ear infection. With that extra time to heal and a full summer to train, Darche says he’s in terrific shape and eager to contribute should an NHL offer come his way.
“I hope I’m still playing,” he said. “I feel great training – I’ll be on the ice every day this week – and I feel as good physically as I have in a bunch of years.
“Because our season ended so early and I didn’t play the last month and a half, all the aches and pains are gone. That’s why I’m so disappointed to not get a chance to come back (to the Canadiens). With the miserable season we had in Montreal last year, there’s now a sense of optimism.
“But hey, it’s a decision they made. I’m still confident I’ll play somewhere. Is it guaranteed 100 per cent? Of course not. But I don’t regret my decision one bit (to reject the Canadiens offer). I don’t consider myself too good for the AHL by any means, but I’ve done my time there.”
No moss has grown under Darche’s feet this summer. He and Stéphanie celebrated their 10th anniversary with a trip to Italy in May, he entertained a visit from his brother, Jean-Philippe, the family spent time at a friend’s home on an island in the middle of Lake Placid, together they took in a variety of sports events in Montreal and he was a chaperone – helpfully volunteered by Stéphanie – for Sam’s week-long trip to the Tadoussac region for whale-watching and adventures in the great outdoors.
“Forty-five third-graders,” Darche said, laughing. “The kids had a blast but up at 5 a.m. the first morning I was thinking, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into?’
“You get spoiled with (NHL) travel. On this trip we were in bunk beds in a shack. I joked with my wife by text, ‘Is there anything below a one-star hotel?’ ”
Then there were the too-short days of a father running two multisport sons to their practices and games. Ben was playing soccer three days a week, Darche is coaching Sam’s football team, and of course hockey was part of the schedule, too.
He won’t soon hear the end of the good-natured heckling from fellow parents after his boy’s first career touchdown.
“Sam caught a pass on a nice post down the middle and ran it in from 40 yards,” Darche said. “I ran the whole way with him, down the sidelines.”
Beyond the sometimes frantic family life was Darche’s work with the NHLPA’s negotiating committee and travel to Toronto and New York for meetings as the players and league try to hammer out a new deal.
Darche has done plenty of interviews about the process, and he understands that, in many ways, he’ll never win in the court of public opinion.
“People look at it like it’s billionaires fighting with millionaires and I keep saying I missed the millionaire train,” he said, laughing again. “I can see how people say both sides are spoiled. People can say, ‘I work 80 hours a week at the factory and I don’t make what you guys are making.’ It’s not as simple as that because hockey is a totally different industry.
“If you work in a factory, and by no means am I degrading what you do, you’re the employee. In hockey, you’re the employee and the product.
“If there’s a lockout, I’ll feel bad for the ushers in the Bell Centre, people like that. For some of them, hockey is a second job to make ends meet. There are no easy explanations. We can say we’re sorry as much as we can and those people won’t understand. If I were them, I’d probably be the same way.
“You can’t compare hockey to any industry but to the sports industry. I get many (negative) comments on Twitter and I don’t even start arguing because I’m in a no-win situation.
“Say we take a 20-per-cent pay cut. Tell Vinnie Lecavalier his $10 million will go down to $8 million. ‘Poor him,’ people might say. But the point is, he’s got a contract that was agreed to by both sides and he’s still losing $2 million.
“If the league is doing so well that we want a pay increase, they’ll say, ‘No way, this is a contract we agreed to.’ It should be the same the other way. We don’t mind in a way restricting our growth to help the league, but why should we go back on what we’ve already agreed to? Nobody forced (owners) to give out these contracts.”
For now, Darche will continue to juggle the duties of being an integral member of a negotiating committee while bargaining with his wife about who drives which son to the soccer field, gridiron or hockey arena.
And as summer soon yields to fall, as Darche hopes the phone will ring with an offer to resume his NHL career, he will enjoy the fact there’s no salary cap, no rollback or no escrow on the grass and ice of the very minor leagues.