Wayne Gretzky believes the NHL will be up and running by Jan. 1. But No. 99 also made it clear that he has no inside knowledge of what has been going on behind the closed doors of the stalled negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA that - in the next few days - will produce the cancellation of the first two weeks of the season.
Gretzky made an appearance in Toronto on behalf of one of his corporate sponsors, TD Canada Trust, on Monday.
Initially, reporters were warned that Gretzky would not take any questions regarding the 17-day lockout. The Hockey Hall of Famer, however, knew his opinion on the subject was wanted and he obliged.
"When I was a player I always wondered how guys who played in the 1960s and 1970s stood up and made the comments on something they probably didn't know a lot about because they're not involved in the day to day, so for me to sit here and try to analyze what's going on would be hypocritical because I'm not involved day to day," Gretzky began.
"The only thing I will say is the commissioner's office and Donald Fehr and the Player's Association are very smart men. They're both very intelligent. They're both leading with people that are following them tremendously and it's a matter of sitting down and getting a deal done.
"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 for my point of view seems to be out of the way. Now it's a question of working out the number that both sides think is fair. And that's why I believe that I don't see this lockout being as long as the last one.
"I think that ultimately here both sides will sit down and they will get a deal done here so hockey will be back playing."
Gretzky was then asked by CBC's David Price if he should buy tickets for the Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at the University of Michigan on Jan. 1.
"I don't know," Gretzky said. "I believe in my heart, and maybe because I'm such a big hockey fan, that they will be playing by January 1. I think the hard part of their deal was the last negotiations of players agreeing to a salary cap and now that there is a salary cap in place and revenue sharing, I see them ultimately getting a deal done here. And I see them playing hockey this year, yes."
What Gretzky failed to concede was that the players would like to see a better revenue-sharing system, something the owners have shunned so far. One of his former players, when he coached the financially-troubled Phoenix Coyotes, commented on this on Saturday.
"As a player, we understand there are certain things [the owners] want," Coyotes captain Shane Doan told the arizonasports.com as he took batting practice before the Arizona Diamondbacks game. "As a player, we think that if they want us to share the amount we've made, they need to share with each other. That's one of the biggest parts of this. If they aren't even willing to share with each other, it makes it very hard to ask the players to cover everything.
"The league is made up of 30 teams and individual groups. We all feed off each other, because we play each other. The whole league needs to be stronger, and we want that.
"The players in our last agreement gave a lot. In this agreement we are willing to help out, but [the owners] have to help out each other too."
The NHLPA and NHL engaged in discussions on non-economic issues last Friday, Saturday and Sunday in New York and now will retreat to see if there is a next move by either side.
On Friday, the two sides talked about the necessity of more drug testing, especially during the season. The next day the two groups zoned in on defining hockey-related revenues, and on Sunday the player-safety issues that were touched on Friday continued to be discussed. Similar talks on these matters will continue over the next couple of days.
When the NHLPA and NHL decided to restart negotiations on the most important issue - how to divide the $3.3-billion US of hockey-related revenue - is anybody's guess. The NHL repeatedly has stated that it is waiting to see a new proposal from the NHLPA, and the players have said that any immediate salary give backs was a non-starter.
It seems as if the NHL's plan is to wait and see how the players will react after they miss a couple of pay cheques. The NHLPA board had a conference call on Monday and they continue to be galvanized. But will they continue to walk the walk and talk the talk in November?
So we'll see if Gretzky's Jan. 1st hopes will be met. But right now it appears both sides remain firmly entrenched in their positions and not willing to come together to get a deal done.
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