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Was Gretzky Optimistic or Just Playing It Safe?
Ryan Cowley: "This wasn't one of those occasions where being careful with what you say is acceptable"

Image: Flickr

While the National Hockey League is going through its darkest time right now, there aren’t situations much better than having the game’s greatest player speak about the current lockout. Wayne Gretzky addressed the media this week by stating that he believes the NHL will be up and running by January 1, the same day as the league’s annual Winter Classic. While some, like TSN, are calling Wayne ‘The Great Optimist’, I’m having a difficult time finding what was so positive about what The Great One said.

While he did say that he sees the lockout ending by the New Year, Gretzky didn’t specify a timeframe. Are we to believe that the end of the lockout is imminent and we should all hold our breath in anticipation or did Gretzky simply mean that the NHL won’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement until a few days after Christmas? This wasn’t a case of just another Pollyanna saying all problems will be rectified in the blink of an eye. This was the game’s greatest player and arguably its great ambassador being as conservative as anyone possibly can — and I expected more.

When I first read the headline ‘The Great Optimist’, I had reason to be, well, optimistic. Here is Wayne Gretzky discussing the state of the game he once so proudly dominated on the ice. Then to hear January 1, I had to check my calendar as I was under the impression that this is the first week of October. Had Gretzky said November 1, I would have been thrilled, even though getting all 30 teams prepared for the drop of the puck in just under four weeks is a tad unrealistic. Given the exodus to exodus to Europe by so many players, the league would have to wait for each of them to get back to North America in time much less having all 30 teams hold formal training camps above all else. Had Gretzky said December 1, then I would have been satisfied. Fans would still have to wait a little while but knowing that they will be guaranteed NHL hockey this season, a little patience is a small price to pay. But January 1? I can’t accept that.

By January 1, the NBA will have completed its second full month of their season, the NFL would be just starting their postseason, college football will be in the middle of bowl season with the four major bowl games to played that day and many hockey fans, while most would learn to eventually let bygones be bygones, will be too busy with either any of the aforementioned events or just doing something constructive because, let’s face it, while a vast majority of fans will come back to hockey the second the lockout ends, a not-so-modest percentage will throw the game to the curb. After all, the fans were barely considered important during the lockout so why should they give the league and the union the benefit of the doubt at the NHL’s time of need?

When discussing the current lockout, Gretzky went on to say that there’s more hope for a season now than there was during the 2004-05 lockout when the principal issue then was installing a salary cap, which the players and the union vehemently refused causing the season to eventually be cancelled. While Gretzky did make a good point about the salary cap issue, I believed for months that having a salary cap in place was precisely why there wouldn’t be a lockout this time around. Of course, I was wrong.

The Great One went on to tell TSN, “I think that in 2004 we were changing the whole landscape. Ownership wanted to have some sort of revenue sharing and once we came to the revenue sharing, the hard part — from my point of view — seems to be out of the way.”

Gretzky finished by saying, “Now it’s a question of working out the number that both sides think is fair.”

I sincerely hope that Wayne Gretzky is right about this and that there will be a new CBA well before January 1. With all due respect to the game’s greatest player, though, I don’t feel it was at all necessary to say these types of things if it only meant the status quo. I understand that Wayne Gretzky has always been the soft-spoken type and with that, he definitely isn’t the first sports figure that comes to mind when needing someone to, pun intended, drop the gloves.

What Gretzky said was safe, crowd-pleasing and while I’m a fan of that once in a while, this wasn’t one of those occasions where being careful with what you say is acceptable.

Unlike seven years ago, Wayne Gretzky does not own a team, coach a team or is involved with a team of any official capacity. If Gretzky was timid about expressing his opinions then, I couldn’t blame him for staying quiet. But now, I’m not as understanding.

What kind of impact Gretzky could have had on the two sides had he put his foot down is unknown. The end of result would’ve most likely been moot as (NHL Commissioner) Gary Bettman and (NHLPA Executive Director) Donald Fehr, as far as I’m concerned, have next to no appreciation for this game and its history — which would include Number 99 himself.

Nonetheless, I wish Wayne Gretzky would have said something more substantial, something that would leave his audience looking forward to the NHL this season. Gretzky did not do that and I’m disappointed as a result. I only hope that, by January 1, I don’t feel the same about the results of the lockout.


Ryan Cowley is a writer at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter @RyanACowley.

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