TORONTO — Brian Burke walked the red carpet at Monday night’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony and was determined not to go there. After doing an interview about former Toronto Maple Leafs center Mats Sundin, the general manager declined to talk about what everyone had no choice but to talk about: the NHL lockout.
There’s not much Burke or any executive can say, the result of a gag order as the league endures its second work stoppage in the past eight years. The problem is that it’s even a topic of conversation, and there’s no doubt that the lockout cast a pall over what should have been a weekend about Adam Oates, Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic and Sundin, even as they tried to shake it off.
“Being here in this Hall, the sanctuary of our game, celebrates everything that is good and right about hockey,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Even in difficult times, we find ourselves reassured to be here to recognize ultimate achievements on the ice. All of us, fans, teams and players, look forward to the time the game returns there.”
Bettman received tepid applause when introduced at the ceremony, and television cameras caught him getting icy glares from former players in attendance. He avoided reporters, and NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr didn’t talk out of respect for the festivities.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to say. Everybody has an opinion about the lockout, though as Oates, the Washington Capitals’ coach, said: “I’m required to be diplomatic right now.”
Burke, too. He had to refrain from answering several questions during a panel on labor issues in major league sports at Monday’s Primetime Sports Management Conference.
“Not having anything to say is a very difficult position for me,” Burke said. “I have plenty to say, and I will say it at the appropriate time.”
Amid talk of Oates’ time with Brett Hull, his 1,079 career assists and his road to the Hall of Fame, the former center had to field questions about the lockout. He follows the updates but doesn’t think this induction was overshadowed.
“It’s a shame that it’s happening for the game of hockey, but it’s happening,” Oates said. “It’s fine. For us, it doesn’t take anything away from the feelings we have and the memories we have.”
When fans walk into the Great Hall and see the plaques of Oates, Bure, Sakic and Sundin, few will remember that they made it in during the lockout that shortened or canceled the 2012-13 season.
But that didn’t help much Sunday and Monday as so many expressed disappointment about the idle state of the game.
That included former coach and Hall of Fame selection committee co-chair Pat Quinn, who said without the NHL, Canada’s order is “out of whack.” But he argued that the ceremony wasn’t taking a back seat to the lockout.
“I think if anything the focus is on our game in the historical sense of it,” Quinn said in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. “This is what we celebrate, is our history and the great people that have built this game.”
While celebrating the new inductees, former players lamented not having games to watch. “It’s a little quiet around here for a hockey town,” ex-Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker said.
Hall of Famer Igor Larionov used the opportunity to say that he hoped the league and NHLPA would “find common sense and get the game going.” For now, he’s still plenty involved.
“I watch a lot of games now,” the Detroit Red Wings legend said. “For the last two weeks, I saw everything except NHL.”
That’s how it could be for a while, too, despite Larionov’s optimism that a deal could be done within two or three weeks. NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr said the two sides are “fairly close” on revenue sharing but not so much on other issues, such as splitting hockey-related revenue and player contracting rights. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly agreed with that assessment.
It was the go-to topic around the Hall of Fame, even though many are uncomfortable talking about collective bargaining negotiations, especially those who have no say in the matter.
Most were content to see peers for one night, reminiscing and trying to forget that there are no NHL games at the present.
“We’re all happy to be here and see hockey people and enjoy it for an evening,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said.