Ron MacLean: Red Wings, Leafs key to resolving NHL lockout

Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has to see the foolishness in the NHL owners' lockout, writes Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean. And Toronto and Detroit are the two teams you should beg to do what is right and do it now. Make it a classic resolution. Lead Gary Bettman out of this silliness.

Hockey Night in Canada host says 2 teams could help lead to 'classic resolution'

Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch also owns the MLB's Detroit Tigers. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Two stories and too much time got me thinking.

The first was Barcelona soccer star Lionel Messi scoring his 91st goal of 2012 last week. As you know it arguably became the benchmark for the greatest goal-scoring campaign in history.

Those who would be detractors point to his world-class Barcelona teammates such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Pedro as being the only reason for Messi’s exploits.  

The second story was from Christine MacDonald in the Detroit News, exploring the possibility that since 1980, Olympia Entertainment — owners of the Red Wings — had a lease of Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Arena which promised the city of Detroit a 25 per cent share of cable TV rights for live events. The city hasn’t been able to collect.

There were various estimates as to the amount owing ranging from just north of US$10 million to $70 million. There was confusion over who was at fault. Whether it was oversight by Olympia in failing to pay, or city incompetence in failing to collect.

It was ironic that the story surfaced at the same time Olympia wishes to use up to $12.8 million a year in tax dollars to fund a new downtown arena.

Connecting the dots

Here’s how they connect.

Messi is fortunate to play where you can still assemble greatness. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch knows about this too. He saw it with his Detroit Tigers this year and he has surely realized it with the Red Wings.

Ten years ago, Ilitch’s Wings featured several players with superstar pedigree among the twenty skaters they iced each night en route to the Stanley Cup, including Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Federov, Igor Larionov, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek. 

Ten of the greatest players ever were on just that one team.

They squeaked by an equally star-studded Colorado team which ended up signing three of its crucial pending free agents in Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Rob Blake in the summer of 2001.

Why? Because it was smart business.

Mike Ilitch has to see the foolishness of the owner’s lockout. I realize you might doubt that when according to payroll charts in Jimmy Devellano’s book The Road to Hockeytown, in 1984-85 — at a time the only reason you bought a ticket in Detroit was to see the kid "Stevie Y" — Yzerman was only the 15th-highest earning Red Wing.

Or that by 2003-04 after Yzerman had delivered three Cups, he was just the sixth-highest earning Red Wing — Lidstrom, Curtis Joseph, Shanahan, Hasek and Chelios all made more — and during the lockout in 2004-05, Yzerman was only the fourth highest-paid Red Wing despite 20 years of NHL service.

Shameful. I don’t blame Illitch, because Yzerman was always inclined to take less to sign more stars, but you could argue until the cows come home about the fairness of it all.

The Red Wings were supposed to be gearing up for this year’s cash cow (alright I’ll get off that) in the Winter Classic. Their opponent was Toronto.

Ten years ago the Maple Leafs’ roster included Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, Mikael Renberg, Gary Roberts, Robert Reichel, Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson, Curtis Joseph, Jyrke Lumme and Tomas Kaberle. 

Rolling out the finest

Like Detroit, they’ve known what it means to roll out some of the finest. From 1993 to 2002 they were in the Conference final four times, but since the 2004-05 lockout they have not made the playoffs.

It’s not for lack of spending in the front office, though. Brian Burke, Dave Nonis and Cliff Fletcher have 23 scouts listed on their website. The Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings have 14, while the Calgary Flames have only 11.

Like Olympia, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has gone big time, with NHL, NBA, AHL, and MLS teams. It also owns the Air Canada Centre, condominiums, restaurants and bars, and a couple of regional sports networks.

And Rogers Communications and Bell just paid $1.3 billion for a 75 per cent share of MLSE. Bell also owns 18 per cent of the Montreal Canadiens, and paid for the arena naming rights in Montreal. Rogers got the arena nameplate in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, Rogers has opened the vault for their Toronto Blue Jays. This year’s payroll is at $125 million.

Why? Because it’s smart business.

Classic resolution

And Leafs and Red Wings are the two teams you should beg to do what is right and do it now.

Make it a classic resolution. Lead Gary Bettman out of this silliness. Stop with the clumsy bookkeeping Olympia Entertainment or "how can I trust you, let alone give you tax breaks on a new arena?"

Promote the best game by hiring the best players and paying them what they deserve. As is what should have happened with Yzerman. 

In Toronto, go public with your remedy to the lockout, use your clout and pay the right people. If you don’t think it’s about the players, think of Lionel Messi in Barcelona. Think of best on best.  Watch the world juniors in Ufa (how strange that UFA is "unrestricted free agency" in our world).

And think of these moments:

Paul Henderson in 1972. Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in 1987. Mike Richter in1996. Sidney Crosby in 2010 and the countless brilliant performances at the world junior showcase, from Jordan Eberle to Jonathan Toews.

Every one of those moments has something in common: No owners.