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September 28, 2012 | 3:47pm ET


Manny Among Men
Vancouver Canucks forward Manny Malhotra talks candidly about the current NHL lockout.

LOS ANGELES -- So who is the NHL impasse really about?

It's not about the fans; as much as it hurts to write it as it is for you to read it, you will return in droves whenever they drop the puck for real. You're kidding if you think that any of the seven Canadian markets will take a hit in attendance, and don't tell me they'll be scores of empty seats at Madison Square Garden for Rick Nash's first game.

I'm pretty sure the night the Kings raise the Stanley Cup banner here, every seat will be filled. In whatever bank-named arena the Flyers play in on a rescheduled opening night, Orange and Black will fill the joint to the rafters.

As for the recent inference that stated the owners think the fans are doormats, you will return because you have a pure love of the game, period.

It's not about Gary Bettman or Don Fehr.

The NHL Commissioner's risk of losing his job is zero because he's only the well paid spokesman for the owner's group. Gary isn't an investor, nor does he sign a single player, so the vitriol directed at him is as misguided as an errant Jack Johnson slapshot from the point on a Columbus powerplay.

Don is a charismatic figure who provides the NHLPA membership with a sense of security, but it quickly will be false if he can't find a way to get the other side into some legitimate negotiations on the true singular issue, player compensation.

Is about the owners?

They're probably last on the list, they're a cartel of successful businessmen smart enough to realize they're on the winning side of an unfair fight. The battle is skewed because most, if not all of them, don't count on their NHL franchise as their primary source of income. That Thompson dude in Winnipeg is from the richest family in Canada, while the big man in Philadelphia, Ed Snider, owns Comcast Spectacor, a cute little business that has a minority stake in NBCUniversal.

Snider and Boston's Jeremy Jacobs are telling the rest of the crew to follow orders and don't rock the boat. They've explained to their weaker brothers in Anaheim, Nashville and Long Island that while they'll lose a beloved tax write-off for losses they won't incur, they won't lose millions of dollars either and in the end will get what they want, lower labor costs. The one certainty is that at the end of the madness, they'll still be rich and you won't.

Is it about the stars of the game? Sidney Crosby has earned $55 million in NHL salary at age 25 and who knows how much more courtesy of the marketing and endorsement deals he has signed. Shea Weber already cashed $12 million of that $110 million he signed for in July and he's made $21 million over the past four seasons, so he's good.

Let's be real, if you'd ask either player to revenue share with their fourth line forward or seventh defenseman, you'd likely get a response close to what Snider and Jacobs utter when they're posed the same question.

At the end of the day, this impasse is about guys like Manny Malhotra.

Manny's seen it all, starting his NHL as a first round draft pick who failed ahead of huge expectations in New York. He's seen the nuclear winter of the last lockout, venturing to Slovenia and Sweden to play in 2005. He's worked at both ends of the NHL spectrum, logging time with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Vancouver Canucks (his current employer) and his presence as Vancouver's third line center was the primary reason Ryan Kesler emerged as an offensive threat. He's battled back from a serious potential career-ending eye injury during a season that saw him place fifth in the Selke Trophy voting and as fate would have it, the award was won by Kesler.

At 32 years of age he knows he'll never be a superstar, but he's done well, improving his salary from $570,000 upon returning from the 2005 lockout to the $2.5 million he pulls down playing a kid's game a couple of nights a week. The bad news is that he enters the last year of a three year deal that is at risk; should the league lose an entire season, Manny's final year gets burned. He would enter another brave new era of the NHL as a 33-year-old unrestricted free agent with the last entry on his resume being 18 points in 78 games in fourth line duty.

A possible future saving grace is his continuing excellence in the faceoff circle (58.5 win percentage in the regular season, 64.6 per cent in the playoffs) that enhances his market value as a 'specialist,' primarily to contending teams. He's fought hard to carve out a 13-year career at the top of his profession that includes a Masterton Trophy nomination, the award presented for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, traits that need to be injected into these talks.

So when NHLPA head honcho Don Fehr sits at the table and speaks for the players, he primarily speaks for Manny Malhotra and the next one of his kind. I spent a few moments with Manny and he would agree only to a point. To him, there's a strata of players, three levels and each are impacted differently by the inertia.

"The lockout affects everyone, so the union serves everyone's best interest," Malhotra said. "Regardless of the stage of their career, whether it's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sidney Crosby or me, everyone has a major stake in this and I don't think it hits one tier of players harder."

As he speaks with other union members who went through the last lockout, he recalls a certain grouping of players that are a little more special than the rest.

"In '04, we talked about how many guys sacrificed the last year of their career and how disappointing it was for them to finish on a lockout," he said. "There were guys who were at the beginning of their careers who were sent to the minors and really weren't aware of the reality. We're at the same point now, the membership wants this settled for varying reasons and we're unified towards that goal."

Not knowing when the final deal will be struck to get him back on the ice, Malhotra's emotions run in varying degrees.

"I'm experiencing a number of emotions, I don't think there's an overriding one. It's such an emotional time, we're frustrated that this couldn't get done prior to being locked out," he admitted. "We feel confident as to where we are as a union. There's disappointment in terms of the way we feel with the League's proposal by rolling back salaries and honoring contracts that have already been signed. We run the whole gamut of emotions these days."

In speaking to his colleagues, I've found that many of them anticipated a lockout and took the appropriate measures financially in order to overcome the missing paychecks. They will receive a one-time escrow payment on Oct. 15 that approximates one regular season paycheck of their 2011-12 season salary, but they're on their own from there.

"You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Knowing that this CBA was coming up and from what we experienced last time, my family and I were able to prepare ourselves financially. We're set for this time," he conveyed.

While critics have chastised players for fleeing in dozens to play overseas, Manny doesn't see it as a weakness in the solidarity of the union. While he has no present plans to play in Europe, he's fine with his hockey brothers doing so.

"I applaud them; I was one of those guys the last time," he said. "And again, the status of someone's career greatly impacts that movement. If you have a family, kids in school, it's a major decision to be away from home for months. For the young guys who are single and are going overseas, I think that's great."

In a time where the conversation is dominated by money, Malhotra believes compensation has little to do with the motivation to play in Europe.

"The primary reason is everyone wants to stay sharp and ready for when the season resumes," he revealed. "We are creatures of habit and we're used to playing hockey at this time. You can train as much as you want, be in the gym all the time and play in a men's league three times a week but there's nothing compared high level, intense hockey. I respect them for wanting to stay on top of their game."

The one man that has changed the game in Lockout Part Trois is Fehr. A brilliant labor lawyer and mega tough negotiator wasn't at the head of the table for the NHLPA the last time. The owners are prevented thru league by-laws to comment on negotiations (though, not everyone abides by those rules), but privately, if they do sweat at all about these negotiations it's only because Fehr leads the union into the fight.

"It's night and day from where the union is now from just a few years ago," Malhotra said. "In terms of organization, communication and the education level of the rank and file.

"Don has been in this game for 30 years and while he's still familiarizing himself with hockey, he has this air of confidence about him. He makes sure he fully understands what he's talking about and is honest enough to admit that he wants to learn the ins and outs of hockey. By no means does he come off as arrogant, he exudes confidence and I think we have someone leading us that has that level of self-assurance."

My position on the impasse is clear, both sides are wrong; everyone wears black hats these days. The fans have every right to pick the target they choose to unleash their fury upon with the understanding that Bettman is furlongs ahead in that horserace. From the player's side, while there's no denying they're paid an extraordinary amount of money to play a kid's game, when I spoke with Malhotra and listened to his mutual concern and love for the game and the reasonable explanations as to why they unconditionally believe in their leader who led them to a lockout that now jeopardizes the season, it's difficult not to root for their side.

Rooting interests aside, we all want to know: Hey Manny, when do we start?

"I hope we don't lose the season, I hope cooler heads prevail and something works out."

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.


 

 

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