Bad dream: No end to hockey nightmare

Updated: June 6, 2005, 3:05 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

With meetings continuing and NHL labor peace a possibility in the near future, I reviewed some of the lockout's events in my mind the other night.

Our meeting took place during the World Cup, at an all-night coffee shop in downtown Toronto.

He was waiting in a booth along the front window.

Because it was 3:45 a.m., we knew we needed to be on the watch for sportswriters and hockey players stumbling past the window.

Though we had known each other in a professional and even distant way for many years, he said, this would be our last session in such a public place.

I could not call him. I could not approach him openly in arenas, hotel lobbies or outside of meeting rooms. If he ever called me, he would never use his real name but instead would say he was …

He was stumped for a moment.

Looking down, he spotted a story in his newspaper about a noted actor's one-man play, "Mark Twain Tonight," returning to Broadway in June 2005. He brightened, pointed and said that if he ever contacted me, or left a message, he would identify himself as "Hal Holbrook.''

We worked out an intricate system of signaling requests for meetings or, if our locations made that impossible, telephone conversations. He would call my cell phone from a pay phone. I would request a talk by finding the way to use the name of a member of the 1977-78 Toronto Maple Leafs in a story. If he ever decided he had something to get off his chest, he would find a way to get me the information.

He didn't sufficiently trust the security of e-mail – or perhaps me – to leave a cybertrail, so direct computer communication was out.

We agreed to see how it would work out.

Sept. 10, 2004 – In a story about the NHLPA's offer of a luxury-tax system that wouldn't kick in until a team's payroll reached $50 million, I mentioned that this would take a team full of Borje Salmings (in his prime) to reach the threshold, so it was no surprise that the NHL quickly rejected the offer.

My cell phone rang around noon.

"Look," he said, "everybody's shadow-dancing now. The commissioner wants his pound of flesh, he's promised he'll get a cap and what everyone is underplaying is that there are at least eight owners who don't want to play at all this season unless the players completely capitulate. So nothing counts for a while."

Sept. 16, 2004 – In New York the day after the lockout announcement, I was instructed in a quick phone call to go to the box office of a Broadway play and buy the ticket left in my name. After I was seated, an usher returned to my seat and handed me a second "Playbill" magazine – which along with the slip informing that the star would be replaced that night by the standby, also contained a document listing the ages, salaries and "projected career duration" for the union's player officers. My guess was that it was implying that this veteran-laden leadership group would be made to regret their militancy, since it appeared those players never would make up for lost pay in a lockout of significant length.

When I asked "Holbrook" later, he said, "Yes, but that's only part of it. I admire those guys in some ways because they could have taken a cap and not been all that affected. But the wrong players are the leaders. The younger they are, the more they have at stake – long-term. And those guys are like sheep. But then again, the wrong owners are carrying the day, too."

Oct. 22, 2004 – After I mentioned former Leafs Trevor Johansen and Pat Boutette in consecutive stories, which was quite a trick considering they were in pieces about the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers, "Holbrook" called. I asked him about the significance of the announcement that NHL teams had been told they could release arena game dates on a rolling, 45-day basis. "All show," he said. "See how many dates are added. You can't add anything any good on that short notice."

He turned out to be right.

Noticing all those opened dates, KISS decided to have a spontaneous 32nd farewell tour, but that replaced only one game in each city.

And that was it.

Dec. 8, 2004 – On the night before negotiations finally were to resume in Toronto, I climbed onto the third car of a northbound subway near my hotel at the prescribed time. Two stops later, "Holbrook" himself walked onto the train. Wordlessly, he handed me an envelope and kept walking into the next car . Back at my hotel, I looked over the photocopy of a secret union memorandum outlining the possibility of undercutting many of the league's arguments by accepting 24 percent salary rollbacks across the board.

Preposterous, I thought. I decided I would need further confirmation before running with this. In the limited time before deadline, I couldn't get anyone to vouch for the document – much less take it seriously.

My mistake.

Dec. 15, 2004 – Again in Toronto, the day after the league rejected the players' offer but incorporated the 24 percent rollbacks in the counterproposal, we met at what we figured would be a quiet, discreet and relatively deserted place – Air Canada Centre during a Raptors game.

The commissioner, "Holbrook" said, had been spotted talking with the pictures of his predecessors, bemoaning how easy they had it in an era of either nonexistent or compliant union leadership, and promising them he wouldn't cave in.

Jan. 7, 2005 – After the NHL canceled a board of governors meeting scheduled for mid-January, saying it would serve no purpose because there was no progress to report in the negotiations, "Holbrook" faxed me a picture of guests fighting and hitting each other with chairs on the "Jerry Springer Show." The homemade typed caption: "What the solidly united board of governors would have looked like if the meeting had gone on as scheduled."

Feb. 14, 2005 – In a dark Hippodrome parking garage in Manhattan, "Holbrook" emerged from the shadowy corners and assured me that the die was cast, that despite sporadic negotiations involving delegations of various sizes, the gap wouldn't be closed in time.

"Kind of makes you wonder why they weren't talking seriously all along, huh?" he asked.

I nodded.

He looked me in the eye and added, "You should find the answer to that. And you can't underestimate the number of times the union head has been asked why he swore they'd never accept a salary cap, and that it was a matter of principle and watching each other's back, and now – after all of this – he's backing down."

June 2, 2005 – Minor problem: My e-mail program automatically assumes that when I receive an identically worded e-mail 20 times within six months from one sender, it is spam. So I hadn't receive the latest update ("The two sides met for 6 hours, 14 minutes and 22 seconds and while they made absolutely no progress, we have agreed to meet again tomorrow") when "Holbrook" called. He filled me in about that, then said he was coming around to the view that both sides had figured out neither could afford not to have a new agreement in place by July 1. With diminished television revenue, deteriorating season-ticket bases, unhappy and uncommitted advertisers and sponsors, and even signs that at least U.S. newspapers were considering treating the league as on a par with Arena Football and Major League Soccer when it returns, all parties were coming to their senses.

Finally, I asked him who he liked to win the Stanley Cup in 2006.

But before he answered in my dream, I woke up.

And when I turned on the television again, the morning shows were still talking about Mark Felt.

I wonder whether Bob Woodward ever asked him whether he liked hockey.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."