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Waiting for Bettman

The strange final days of the NHL lockout

Last Wednesday, as the temperature dipped below 25 degrees in New York, a bunch of Canadians were staring at a door. The door is located at 1185 Sixth Avenue. Behind it are the offices of the National Hockey League. The Canadians wore heavy parkas. They carried notebooks and mics and they shivered and sipped coffee. People stopped and asked what they were doing, staring at a door. The Canadians told them: They were waiting for Bettman.

Gary Bettman is the commissioner of the NHL. (A lot of people on Sixth Avenue didn’t seem to know this.) NHL players had been locked out for 100 days, the third work stoppage of Bettman’s tenure, and now the whole season was in jeopardy. (Some passersby looked skeptical and asked, “Is Obama in there?”) For NHL reporters — and me, an uninvited embed — the lockout had entered its surreal final days.

“It’s absurd,” said Darren Dreger, a reporter for the Canadian station TSN. “We’re standing on a street corner in Manhattan, in sub-zero conditions, waiting for a kernel of information.”

“It is soul-sucking,” said Pierre LeBrun, Dreger’s TSN colleague and an ESPN contributor. “It really is soul-sucking.”

Make no mistake, there was a lot of crackerjack journalism being pulled out of 1185 Sixth Avenue. On Twitter, insiders like LeBrun and Sportsnet’s John Shannon seemed to read the minds of the two negotiating parties. Columnists like the National Post‘s Bruce Arthur took the collective-bargaining carnage and made it intelligible. But what brains and technology couldn’t change — what was grimly fascinating about the lockout beat — was how old-fashioned it was. You waited. You shivered. You stared at the door.

“Even as a Canadian,” said Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman, “I will admit this is cold.”

A few days before, the same Canadians, give or take a few, were staring at the same door. Bettman walked out and turned north. Everybody was about to follow him, but then Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, walked out and turned south. A diversion! By the time the reporters recovered, Bettman had vanished into the crowd near the pashmina stand at Sixth Avenue and 47th Street. An agreement was made, a cameraman with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation later told me: “If no one got the shot, it didn’t happen.”

I wanted to see how weird the NHL lockout could get. It got weirder.

December 6. Day 82 of the lockout. I arrived to the Westin New York Hotel at Times Square, which, according to the newspapers, was the site of the day’s negotiations. A TV guy told me to try the fifth floor. On this and every other day I spent at the lockout — days when I got within a couple of feet of Bettman and union chief Donald Fehr and Penguins star Sidney Crosby — no official ever asked me who I was, who I worked for, or even if I was a reporter. I just showed up, took a seat, and tried to blend in.

Two seats to my right, a man in a Yankees cap was asleep. One seat to my right, a man with curly hair pulled back into a ponytail was awake. “What are we waiting for?” I asked him.

“Next season,” the man said.

He was Constantine Gamvrelis. Gamvrelis, a Winnipeg Jets season-ticket holder, was a fellow lockout-crasher. He’d walked into the Westin, claimed a seat, and had been tweeting out news since the night before. Gamvrelis told me he was “representing the fans.”

The lockout was so dull that even the ace writers from Canada had to hunt for tweets. “Face it,” said the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox, “we’re all trying to scrape together morsels.” But in his first day on the beat, Gamvrelis figured out a neat trick: watch the furniture. It told you everything you needed to know. For instance, the previous night, Westin hotel workers came into the press room and assembled a spiffy podium, complete with an NHL logo. Gamvrelis took this as a sign and tweeted it. A whole lot of people retweeted it. “I got 1,000 new followers in 24 hours,” he said. (The inevitable @NHLPodium parody account followed.)

Of course, the podium wasn’t actually news. The only people who spoke at it that night were functionaries, and they had nothing new to report. But during the lockout, it was a ray of hope. Gamvrelis, who worked at the United Nations, had become a media star.

“I’ve done four radio interviews,” he told me, “and I’ve got another three lined up through Saturday … Everybody’s like, ‘Dude, you’re famous in Winnipeg!'” But Don Cherry he was not. When an NHL Players’ Association representative ventured down to the fifth floor, hoping to whisper in the ears of a few reporters, Gamvrelis was excluded from the scrum. Reporters saw him as competition. “A couple guys that were very nice to me on Tuesday haven’t had much to say to me since,” he said.

I was staring at Gamvrelis’s feet. “That material. Is that — “

“Yes,” he said proudly. “I’m wearing blue suede shoes.”

The lockout had a way of turning sportswriters into foreign correspondents. They parachuted into New York from Canada and beamed news back to the mother country. The locals, sadly, didn’t much care. At the end of the 2004-05 lockout, Simon Dingley, a producer-reporter for the CBC, did a live shot outside NHL headquarters. “A businessman walked by us,” Dingley remembered, “and asked, ‘What happened?’ We said, ‘The NHL lockout has ended.’ He said, ‘What’s the NHL?'”

Canadians, on the other hand, were starving for info — the lockout regularly led the CBC nightly newscast, The National. But to judge by reporters’ Twitter mentions, the real question Canadians wanted answered was, When does hockey start? “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something on my blog,” said Friedman, “and people say, ‘Would you stop writing this shit?'”

As if to clarify hockey’s place in the American cultural hierarchy, a Westin employee appeared around 4 p.m. and told us we had to leave the press room. The hotel had booked it for a Christmas party. If the fate of the league was going to be decided, it was going to be decided in another room, on the second floor. Constantine and I got on the escalators and followed the reporters downstairs.

On the second floor, hotel personnel were setting up a stage. A podium! We had action.

A few minutes later, Don Fehr came in, trailed by a retinue of NHL players. On this day, as usual, he had skipped the tie. The players — who included Crosby, Ron Hainsey, and Martin St. Louis — looked like Abercrombie & Fitch models.

Fehr was ebullient. The players had given the owners a proposal, he said, and he thought they’d jump on it. “Don, is there a possibility there could be an agreement as early as tomorrow?” a reporter asked.

“Sure would be nice,” Fehr said, fighting off a smile.

Canadian reporters, I found out later, were perplexed by Fehr’s optimism. “All the information I had was that there was no deal done,” said Friedman. “You’re sitting there saying, ‘Hmmm … ‘” Damien Cox said, “It was just theater.” The reporters were right. Fehr returned to the podium a few minutes later and, in a dramatic reversal, admitted the owners had rejected the players’ proposal in a matter of minutes. There was no deal. The idea of ending the lockout the next day had been fiction.

This was a vivid example of how much bogus information was bouncing around New York. “It is another level,” said Dreger. “Both sides are guilty, and we reporters are guilty.” But most trial balloons were floated in tweets that began, “One player told me … ” Fehr had trolled the entire press corps.

We didn’t have time to consider his motives, because after Fehr and the players left, we heard the podium was getting another visitor. Bettman was coming.

Gary Bettman looks like the restaurant critic in Ratatouille, only shorter. On this night, his face bore the expression of a man who has just been convicted of embezzlement and knew he was getting at least 10 years. Bettman took the podium at the Westin and he was angry — boy, was he angry.

“I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight … “

Bettman was blinking rapidly.

“The things that we added to the table this week are now off the table … “

Blink. Blink. Blink.

“Today, we were expecting an answer, a yes or a no … “

“The answer wasn’t yes … “

By this point, my wife — who wouldn’t know Gary Bettman from Gary Gilmore — had joined me in the press conference. We were supposed to go out to eat, and I assured her she’d have no problem waiting in the press room. She didn’t. She took a seat about 10 yards from Bettman and started to read on her BlackBerry.

Bettman was now growling at the reporters. “Excuse me, I’m speaking,” he snapped. It was good theater. Fehr was playing the role of the happy warrior, Mr. Get-‘Er-Done, while Bettman was the snarling truth-teller. For a minute, a dreary work stoppage became a sporting event. They threw a lockout and a hockey game broke out.

As Bettman growled and blinked, I noticed that the NHL players had re-entered the conference room and lined up at the back. They listened without expression, like a wrestler does when his opponent is cutting a promo across the ring. “Are you making some kind of a statement?” someone asked them. “No,” one of the players said, “we just couldn’t get TSN upstairs.” They left.

I lost Constantine at this point. He’d told me he’d worn a tie so he could crash corporate holiday parties at the Westin. If they were as penetrable as the lockout, he’d get all the food and drink he wanted.

January 2. Day 109 of the lockout. The snug boardrooms of the Westin were a distant memory. The Canadians had been dumped onto Sixth Avenue in sub-freezing temperatures. The night before, a bunch of reporters had discovered that the little HSBC ATM chamber at 47th Street had heat and Wi-Fi. Then a security guard came and kicked everyone out.

This was the final push — the season would be saved or canceled. Elliotte Friedman said, “I don’t have a flight back.” The sources that usually pinged Darren Dreger from inside the talks had gone silent — a good sign. Reporters were digging in.

Around 2:30 p.m., the players entered NHL headquarters. They’d sent an e-mail tipping off the media to their arrival, so cameramen wouldn’t miss them like they had Bettman. A little over an hour later, Fehr came out of the building and said he had nothing to report.

Veteran reporters like Damien Cox had been through four NHL work stoppages, starting with the 10-day strike in ’92. In previous labor disputes, Canadian fans tended to side with the owners. “People in Canada say, ‘I’d play for $10 a week,’ or, ‘I could have played, I just didn’t get the chance,'” Cox said.

But this time, the players had fought the owners to at least a PR draw and probably a win. Social media tipped the balance. Bettman had limited his side to two spokesmen: himself and Bill Daly. Daly worked the phones at night, calling reporters at odd hours to respond to questions. “There’s not one member of the media who doesn’t think Bill Daly is his best friend,” said Sportsnet’s John Shannon.

Fehr, by contrast, opened the floodgates. Much like the NFL lockout, any player on Twitter could take up arms. And if Twitter disseminated the occasional high stick — the Red Wings’ Ian White calling the commissioner an “idiot“; the Panthers’ Kris Versteeg calling Bettman and Daly “cancers” — that had strategic value, too. It softened up the enemy, the same way NFL players had done to Roger Goodell.

At eight that night, the players marched into NHL headquarters again. A few dozen reporters stood out in the cold, and an NHL official took pity and said they could hold their nightly vigil inside the building. I followed the pack through the door — again, no one asked who I was — and we were escorted up to the 13th floor.

The 13th floor of NHL headquarters has a mock-penalty box, complete with two-minute clock. (Dreger: “That’s the countdown until the meeting ends.”) A podium — a podium! — had been set up on one side of a large room. It was decorated with an NHL logo, recalling Constantine Gamvrelis’s big scoop a month earlier. But an official arrived and covered the podium with a black shroud — a funereal touch, or an indication that Fehr would be speaking first.

At 8:17 p.m., Pierre LeBrun tweeted a picture in which his colleague Dreger looked like a ghost. LeBrun’s followers took #dregerface, as it became known, and pasted it onto the Ikea Monkey and Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder scene. When #dregerface was grafted onto a “Gangnam Style” video, Bruce Arthur let out the highest and loudest laugh I have ever heard a human being utter.

That was the extent of the fun. The reporters sat on the 13th floor, without a peep of news, for five hours. There was little to report and leaving was out of the question. Finally, after 1 a.m., there was a stir. “Someone’s coming!” a TV producer shouted. Fehr stepped in front of the black shroud. He seemed annoyed and said he had nothing much to say. The black shroud was taken down. Gary Bettman appeared. He was in a jollier mood than Fehr, proving that in the meta-theater of the lockout, each actor was also the other’s understudy. “I’m sorry,” Bettman told us, “that you had to wait so long for so little news.” It was insincere, but it was nice of him to lie.

When Bettman left the podium around 1:15, the NHL’s hospitality came to an abrupt end. An official said we had 15 minutes to clear out of the building.

January 6. Day 113 of the lockout. The last night proved to be the longest. It was 5 a.m. before Bettman and Fehr stood together and announced that an agreement had been reached. The press corps had been holed up in the Hotel Sofitel on 44th Street, where the players were staying. “They gave us a boardroom on the fourth floor,” Sportsnet’s Michael Grange reported, “but guys kept moving to the hotel lobby, which was more plush. Around three in the morning, these hotel guests who’d been having a really fun time out in New York came in and said, ‘Are you guys still here?!”

Did these New York partiers know why you were in a hotel lobby at 3 a.m.?

“No!” Grange said. “We had to explain it to them.”

Later that evening, on Sixth Avenue, the news that the NHL lockout was over had already been swallowed by NFL wild-card games. A woman watched Grange do his Hockey Central report and said, “He looks like Troy Aikman.” But you could see that the Canadians were giddy. They rose up and down on the balls of their feet. It was hockey season. I noticed Sportsnet’s Hockey Central had taken out some b-roll of Bettman strolling down Sixth Avenue and replaced it with actual hockey footage.

“Someone told me, ‘Give us five minutes on what the Leafs’ player moves will be,'” John Shannon said. He laughed. “I have no clue. I have no idea. It’ll take a few days. I’m like an Apollo astronaut on reentry.” The lucky reporters got to fly home to Canada on Monday. The unlucky ones would stay in New York two more days for the NHL Board of Governors meeting, where the new deal needs to be approved. Maybe they’d grab a drink. “I was here 30 to 40 nights,” Grange said, “and only two of them were debaucherous. When I was here for the Stanley Cup finals, it was nine out of 10.”

A few minutes later, Gary Bettman slipped out of NHL headquarters. The Canadians almost missed him, because for the first time since summer, no one much cared. TV cameras didn’t swivel to capture his movements. Reporters didn’t yell his name. Hockey was a real thing again, and the precise coordinates of the small man in the leather jacket didn’t matter. Bettman whispered a few words to Shannon, Grange, and LeBrun, and then he put his head down and walked into the night. He was unfollowed. He was a man no one was waiting for.

Filed Under: Current Events, NHL Lockout, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast