Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, photographed last November in Uniondale, N.Y.
Mike Stobe, NHLI via Getty Images
• Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov suffered a light rib injury Friday night during his Vityaz Chekhov club’s Kontinental Hockey League game in Russia. Great fears in Montreal Friday night, by then early morning Saturday in Moscow, were that he’d gone down with another knee injury. Markov told François Gagnon of La Presse on Saturday that he’d merely been winded after checking an opponent, his ribs taking the brunt of impact. Markov left the game after roughly eight minutes of ice time, with no information coming from the team at the time.
Below: exclusive Brian Gionta one-on-one:
Brian Gionta is one of more than 700 National Hockey League players who since Sept. 15 has been locked out by his league.
At midnight Friday morning, at the expiration of a deadline it had set, the NHL pulled its most recent offer to the players off the table.
Thus ended any hope of a full 82-game schedule, the league and its players seemingly still far apart in their negotiations to produce a new collective bargaining agreement.
Then on Friday, the NHL announced the cancellation of games through the end of November. When the Nov. 27 match between Dallas and Columbus is not played, the league will reach a milestone 2,000 games cancelled by lockout during the reign of commissioner Gary Bettman, in fact 2,024 through Nov. 30.
(The math: 468 regular-season games to begin the 1994-95 season, all 1,230 of 2004-05 and now 326 this season.)
On Thursday night, I had a lengthy, wide-ranging conversation with Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, 33, who was a member of the New Jersey Devils – a three-year veteran of the NHL – when a stake was driven through the 2004-05 season.
What follows is an edited transcript of our talk. Visit hockeyinsideout.com to read the complete version:
• Brian, at midnight, another NHL deadline expires and on Friday, we all expect another shoe to drop, to see the league pull its most recent offer to players and cancel more games…
Unfortunately, it kind of shows where the league is going with things. They said the latest deadline was to save an 82-game schedule and about their concern for wanting to do that. But in reality, obviously, there hasn’t really been the push that they say there has been. If they really wanted to save 82 games, they should have started the process back in August or September or, at the very least, been willing to hash things out between the (players’) offers. To recess for 10 minutes then come back and say, ‘No, on all accounts,’ then say, ‘We have nothing new to say,’ and then sit for a week, it seems kind of like a scare tactic or posturing on their side.
• Did it strike you as odd that the NHL last Thursday needed just 10 minutes to reject the NHLPA’s three offers, the players’ counter-proposal to the league’s offer of two days earlier that it detailed publicly?
Here’s the feeling with everyone I’ve talked to: At first glance, maybe (the league) might not have liked our offers, but take the time to digest them, look into them, run some numbers, see what they do to the system… The feeling when we got their last proposal was it wasn’t something that we liked. But you go back, analyze the numbers, you see if it’s something you can work off of. At least you understand what’s involved in it. What’s the hit, what does it mean to the landscape of the players and the league? But to take 10 minutes and reject it … when they initially proposed their (Oct. 16) offer, our sense was it was done for public opinion, trying to sway people on their side. It really wasn’t much of an offer to negotiate off of. We got their true intentions as soon as we brought three well-thought-out plans back to them, something to build off, not just one but three different proposals. Maybe draw pieces off each one, or at least discuss what they like or don’t like. Instead, they gave us a stiff arm and said, ‘No thanks, we’re happy with where we’re at right now in terms of negotiating.’
• What does your gut tell you about this season? Do you believe it can be saved, even in an abbreviated form?
I went into this very optimistically. Having gone through the last lockout and feeling the tension and seeing how that one played out with both sides basically not talking for months on end, and nothing getting done… I’d never have thought then that we’d lose the season. My hope is still that cooler heads will prevail and that we’ll be able to salvage this season. But to be honest, it’s when the league wants to get serious about negotiating. We’ve tried from Day 1 to put things forward and try to come up with ways to make everybody happy and get their concerns taken care of. But until their script is, well, you’ve seen the way it’s been playing out. It’s kind of like what happened last year with the two other sports (National Football League and National Basketball Association). I don’t know what the (NHL’s) timeline is. It seems to me they’re not serious until they want to be. Unfortunately, the players have to continue to be patient with that.
• Brian, two days into the lockout, we spoke in Brossard and you told me this about Gary Bettman. Your words: “Look at his track record and it doesn’t bode well. He came out of the last lockout saying we needed to be partners and be in this together. Every time he comes out, he beats us down. At the same time he’s doing this, he’s directly affecting his product. In the minds of the players, it’s tough to swallow.” As this lockout has endured, have your feelings about Bettman changed?
No, not at all. That feeling is even more solidified in the fact that his concern is not for the players. It hasn’t been. I just don’t like the regard that has taken things away from people, the players. We have a limited, short time and he’s already cancelled one season for players, though some of us are still around, and for fans. He doesn’t seem to have much regard for what goes into it. It’s just his bottom line and the league’s. My thoughts have not changed at all.
• Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin evidently didn’t call any of his players during last week’s 48-hour league-granted window of opportunity. Did you expect, as captain, to get a call, even to provide you with a bullet-point summary from the Canadiens to share with your teammates?
No. I guess it just shows the respect that’s there. Even though we’re going through this, Canadiens management are just letting this play out on both sides. They’re not trying to undermine or drive a wedge. Both sides are listening to who they’re getting their information from and working off of that. We’re not trying to back-door anything and that’s good on both sides.
• (On Thursday), to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said, in part, of the league: “They seem to be really good at imposing deadlines and issuing ultimatums and having lockouts. It seems to be something they’re well-practised at.”…
I think everybody has seen it this time around. That’s what (the league) had in mind, this is what they’re trying to do – use a lockout as their strategy for getting what they want. A lockout should be a last resort. You don’t want to shut the game down. You want everybody – fans, employees of the game, people who rely on the game – to bear the fruits of the great league. Unfortunately, (the NHL) has had a lockout in their minds from the start. It seems to be a fairly single-minded approach that they’re thinking only of themselves.
• Brian, having come through the lost season of 2004-05, how does the dynamic of a lockout change a player’s relationship with his team owner and his league?
It’s definitely tough. If you look at the way things are structured in the NHL constitution, (Bettman) doesn’t need a lot of support. That’s unfortunate because three-quarters or two-thirds of the league could be on board with something and it wouldn’t pass if a certain minority group doesn’t want it. A player’s relationship is strained more with the league than with his own organization.
• My guess is that Canadiens majority owner Geoff Molson is one of the more moderate owners, that he’d rather be playing hockey than having the Bell Centre dark…
That would be my feeling, too. You just have to respect each other’s position in the matter. At the end of the day, we’re being advised of certain things and we have the opportunity to express opinions. You don’t know what’s going on behind closed (NHL) doors, which is why I say the player’s relationship is more with the NHL than the actual organizations.
• You’ve been on the road with teammates and fellow NHLers in the Tournée des joueurs, having played half or more of these charity fundraisers. How difficult is it to maintain a sense of enthusiasm for the game as we turn into November, and how challenging is it to maintain a mental and physical fitness at this point?
It’s difficult in the sense that normally we have a set date when we want to be peaking. As athletes, you want to build yourself up to a certain point and be ready then. Now, we don’t have an end date or time when we want to be peaking. It’s trying to maintain the right level of mental and physical sharpness. In the summer, you go for three, four weeks hard and you take a week where it’s lighter, to kind of refresh and regroup for the next stage. The problem now is there’s no end date to build up to. Right now, that’s the biggest struggle, to find the time to refresh and then be peaking at the right times.
• There’s been talk of a one-week training camp. With a compressed schedule – or who knows what it might be in a shortened season – with Canadiens players having been in a state of suspended animation, to not just pack a camp into a week but also learn coach Michel Therrien’s new system, is there any concern about an increased susceptibility to injury?
That’s definitely a concern. You don’t know where everybody’s been and what guys have been doing at different stages. But you’ve got to hope that guys are professional enough to continue to try to keep themselves as ready to go as they possibly can.
• If something broke in the next few days and camp was to begin next week, at what stage of readiness are you? You lost half of last season and underwent biceps surgery, are you pretty close to being 100 per cent?
Everything’s pretty much healed up. It was basically a four-month injury, which kind of brought us into what would have been playoff time last season. I’ve had the whole summer to get it back in shape. In that regard, it’s been pretty good. I haven’t had to cut any corners or know that I’m coming back with it not as strong as it should be.
• Shortly before the lockout was announced, you sat down in Therrien’s office and he asked you to do your best to keep the troops rallied, to keep their spirits up as best you could and keep them ready to go. Have you been able to do that?
You try to stay in touch with the guys, and you try to anyways throughout the summer. It’s definitely a unique situation where you have guys playing in Europe, in their hometowns, some guys here. It’s a mixed group and you have to go with the hope that everyone’s a professional and do what they need to make themselves ready. The guys who are around here, we’re in this and going through it together which is a good thing. There are other people to bounce things off of, kind of pick you up when you’re not having your best day, too.
• You’re known to lead by example. How is your leadership of the Canadiens tested during this lockout?
I don’t think it’s any different than any other time. It’s an extension of summer – you’re doing the same things you’d be doing all summer long: working out, skating with whatever group of guys you’re with and whatever you’d normally do during that time. It’s just for an extended period of time.
• You played 15 games for New Jersey’s American league Albany River Rats farm team during the 2004-05 lockout. How did you spend the rest of that lockout?
I didn’t do anything for most of it. I went to Albany for the last month to get in shape for the world championship (in Innsbruck, Austria). I played in the Deutschland Cup with the U.S. team in mid-November and in the Worlds in May, as well.
• You and your wife, Harvest, have a nearly 6-month-old, James, in the house, as well as Adam, 7, and Leah, 4. How is this lockout changing the quality of life for a husband and a father?
It’s a blessing. I don’t mean that in any way other than being involved with your family and your kids’ daily life, to be a stable force. Your schedule is stable, you’re home with them every night, you’re bringing them to hockey, taking them to and from school. That’s the silver lining in the lockout. For me, I’m a family guy and that’s a huge thing for me. I’ve enjoyed being able to have that extra time with them.
• Of course, Adam’s a hockey player?
(Laughs) Yes, he’s a forward. He likes to score goals. He’s decent, I think he’s fairly good. I try not to coach him at all. I obviously bring him to the rink and watch him. I let him feel things out. He doesn’t know it but he’s got enough to worry about, unfortunately, with his name.
• Okay, I’ve got to ask – what’s his skate size? (Gionta, 5-foot-7, starts to laugh) A few of your teammates suggest that Adam is probably borrowing your skates.
It’s no secret where our size comes from. My kids are the same way as me and my wife. They’re small for their age. But you know what? We’d rather not have it any other way.
• Well, if Adam’s not wearing your skates yet, how many pairs of socks would he have to shove into the boots to make them fit?
(Laughs) A lot. He’s got a small foot, too.
• On a more serious note: If we wind up losing this season completely and all contracts are burned because of it, you’d be left with one more year on your Montreal deal. Is that even in the very back of your mind?
No, not at all. The thought is trying to play this season. I’m trying to stay as optimistic as possible that we’ll start up soon.
• Finally: what can you say directly to Canadiens fans who are missing hockey as the lockout drags on?
That the players feel the same way. It’s a tough situation to be in and fans are the ones who are hurt the most. They’re the ones who pay us by coming out and supporting us. We’re extremely appreciative of that. Unfortunately, they’re the ones being hurt the worst. The fans, and those whose businesses rely on our industry. Everybody who’s being hurt in the process, we’re on their side. We feel the same way. We want to be playing hockey as soon as we can and unfortunately, the powers that be aren’t allowing that to happen.