TORONTO -- At least for one night, the NHLers were playing again in hockey’s center of the universe, the old Maple Leaf Gardens.
The real score was $100,000 -- as in money raised for the NHLPA’s Goals and Dreams fund and RBC Play Hockey for grassroots hockey initiatives across Canada.
The 39 NHLers played up to the sellout crowd of 2,600, fist-pumping with fans and putting on as much of a show as you possibly can in these no-hit, charity affairs.
But mixed in with all that legitimate, feel-good emotion lay an undeniable sentiment that you swear every person in this historic building was thinking all night long: When in the world is the real thing going to return?
"It’s weird to think we’re still in this position this late in December,” winger Daniel Winnik, a member of the NHLPA’s negotiating committee, said after the game. "I never envisioned us being in this position, I don’t think anybody did. But it was neat tonight, especially being at the old Maple Leaf Gardens. I remember being up in the stands in the green seats with my tyke teammates and Wendel Clark fighting right off the opening faceoff."
What we would all do to get back to that kind of NHL normalcy.
Bargaining is at a standstill with no talks planned at this hour.
"Obviously, everyone is frustrated and anxious," Stamkos said. "We feel within the union that we’ve given a lot of concessions and made a lot of effort in this negotiation. Obviously, the point we’re at right now is not something you want to see. But we’ll wait and see what transpires over the next few weeks."
What’s transpiring this week is NHL players voting on whether or not to give the NHLPA executive board authorization until Jan. 2 to file a disclaimer of interest (decertification). That vote wraps up Friday and was an obvious topic of conversation among the players on hand for Wednesday’s charity game.
How could it not be?
"Everyone’s talking about the decertification and that stuff," Stamkos said. "Everyone knows about the vote that’s going."
Shawn Horcoff and Dan Cleary were quoted by ESPN.com earlier this week saying they expected the vote to pass convincingly, a sentiment Stamkos shared.
"Yeah, like I said, we thought we made a lot of the right moves," Stamkos said. "… We feel like we have no other choice right now. We wish we could have got something done much earlier, but we’re here, and we have to deal with what’s in front of us right now."
On a night like Wednesday, with the history in this building, it hits home for these NHLers how badly they want to return to work.
"I came back hoping to play in the NHL," said Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who returned from the KHL in Russia. "This is where my heart is. Winning the Gargan Cup or whatever it is in the KHL [it’s the Gagarin Cup], is not really on my list of priorities. I want to play in the NHL. I want to help with the negotiations and do what I can. It’s a critical time. It’s important that everyone is involved right now."
Just get back in the negotiating room, Lupul urged, with a message to commissioner Gary Bettman.
"When I left Russia, I really thought we were over the hump and things were going to get done," Lupul said. "And now we’re back at one of these standstills where we’re not talking. I’m not an expert at collective bargaining, but there’s not going to be a deal done until we’re sitting across the table from each other. We want to talk every day, we’re free every day. If Gary wants us to come over to his house, we’ll go right over to his house and talk."