Bitter Harvest

Yes, in addition to Columbus Day — a.k.a the time of the year we Americans celebrate some old, white disease-ridden Europeans who crossed the seas and invaded a land already populated by native peoples and gave them gifts of assimilation and annihilation — today is also Canadian Thanksgiving (Jour l’Action de grace).

Fun fact: while the U.S. day of tryptophan worship and football viewing was brought into being by George Washington in 1789 and celebrated annually since 1863, the Canadian version was not solidifed until an act of Parliament in January of 1957.

It is also three days until what would have been the start of the 2012-13 regular season — a season whose true beginnings are unknown.

This fact leaves me with a bitter taste, not unlike the one year in the ’90s my Mom decided to make potatoes au gratin to supplement the turkey feast, only to nuke the Hell out of it until it went down the gullet with a hint of burnt weenies and melted casserole-dish glass.

Another fact which burns the throat and causes agita is that there is no solution to the Collective Bargaining Agreement problem which would prevent further two-week chunks of the master schedule from being excised. Never mind the roughly three-quarters to one-quarter of NHL players who think there will be hockey at some point, but not in this calendar year, what matters most is the constant posturing by the owners and players when talks do occur.

Ah yes, the NHL and NHLPA. Two monoliths standing as still as Stonehenge. Nothing but rhetoric, not unique to either side, bidding for the sympathies of the fans who are turning deaf ears.

If the owners are so united in their cause to lock out the players and force their negotiating hand, why did Gary Bettman issue a gag order so that only he and Number Two Bill Daly are the official and sole NHL spokespersons? From where is the undercurrent of dissent going to originate because all owners, by virtue of their profits running their teams stacked against their other businesses, are not created equal?

If the players are so united, why is Sidney Crosby forced to stay behind in North America while teammate Evgeni Malkin lives it up playing back home in Mother Russia? It can’t really be a cordial relationship if Braydon Coburn as Flyers player representative to the union has to stay behind if needed, while Claude and Danny and Wayne and a coterie of others are hopping planes across the pond at the slightest hint of low insurance costs?

If you hold up your second, third and fourth fingers on either hand, then read between the lines, what do yo get? That’s right. That’s what this is when you sift through all the bull****.

Read through our reprinted pieces from the weekend, where Bettman and Donald Fehr sound like reasonable, intelligent human beings when they’re not required to be the public fronts for organizations at odds with one another.

Today, we should give thanks that there are almost a dozen other outlets to enjoy the sport of hockey, regardless of whether or not an NHL product exists. Talks are scheduled for New York on Wednesday and Thursday, but the grapevine suggests that none of the serious issues are on the table.

If both sides come to their senses and agree to a new CBA by the time certain important calendar mileposts are reached, you can bet the NHL will be burying the new plan in a blizzard of PR the likes of which we may never see again.

Shotgun starts are just that — brief, loud, violent, intense, and only through blind luck and good aim do they hit the target.

To wit, the reconstituted 1995 schedule. Between January 20 and May 3, each of the 26 teams had to play 48 regular-season games, all inter-conference matchups.

For the Flyers, five years out of the playoffs but armed with several key off-season acquisitions by returning GM Bob Clarke, it was a fire drill. Seven games in the first 11 days and 15 games scheduled in a 26-day span were on the slate before an equally-inexplicable one week sabbatical. The bad news, a 3-7-1 start which ended at 6-8-1 before the break. The good news, being so bad in a compressed schedule forced Clarke’s hand into making the fortuitious deal with Montreal, among others.

It was a desperate, sink-or-swim mentality that made for great competition, but left some oddities, like Pittsburgh starting off 12-0-1 and Quebec going 12-1-0 before cooling off, while Washington was 2-8-2 and Vancouver 2-5-4 before both rallied to clinch playoff berths.

Should an agreement come to fruition by Thanksgiving celebrated below the 49th parallel, roughly 18-to-20 games per team would be off the board, leaving a quite unbalanced but still even-numbered 62-to-64 games without needing to reschedule. That’s a pretty nice, manageable number easy on the eyes and easier on the players’ health.

The Orange and Black would open up at home, in their traditional day-after matinee by welcoming the Jets on November 23 after “missing” 18 games. Killer. Bound to be a “sellout” despite however many butts are in the seats. No rescheduling needed by the league office. Playoffs resume on the same date as if nothing happened.

If, however, the target isn’t until New Year’s Day, we’re in for some engineering work by all involved.

Good PR for both sides of the cold equation: the NHL returns at the Big House on the day its symbolic festival was scheduled, and everything goes off without a hitch. TV ratings are a bonanza because fans are just so happy to have the pros back, the skin on their hind quarters merges with Barca-Lounger fabric and their eyes are fixed on the game above all else.

BUT. They’ve just killed roughly half a season, and that means anywhere from 37-to-40 games per franchise have been lost. Even though half a season’s worth of revenue is better than none, you can bet that Bettman et al. will try to turn the reconstituted schedule into the NHL version of a Turducken crossed with product from Taco Town. That spells trouble.

Philly has 45 games remaining from January 3 — in the midst of their holiday road swing that will find them in Los Angeles, until concluding the year on April 13 at home with the Rangers. Nonetheless, if Bettman was so craven as to suggest “the greatest fans in the world” would pay up whenever the NHL returned, he will be so bold as to suggest another shotgun start and finish like the one in 1995 that was a blitz through the late Winter, Spring and early Summer.

He’ll take a page from the NBA’s post-lockout schedule (66 games apiece from Christmas Day to late April) from last season, and may try to cram something like four games per team per week.

Let’s say every team gets 50 games from that point, without breaking for an All-Star Game. Divide that by four and you have a minimum of 13 weeks to finish the year — roughly the second full week of May. That means playoffs will stretch into July, and that’s purely insane. Even in ’95, with the postseason having been completed in the fewest total games since the advent of best-of-seven in all rounds in 1987, the date of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Devils and Red Wings was June 24.

Beyond that — unless there is some kind of accord that permits the Winter Classic to be played while the rest of the new CBA is worked out — it doesn’t make any sense to shorten the schedule below 48 games. Why start a season in late January? Why wait, like in 2005, to officially cancel the season in mid-February? This time around, it should be obvious that, when the irresistable force meets the immovable object, a detente can be called so that we all can get on with our lives.