Don't start dusting off your authentic hockey jerseys and making plans to, finally, attend the Capitals' home opener just yet, but there might be reason to have real optimism that the lockout will end.
As reported by ESPN, a marathon session Tuesday between a new contingent of owners and roughly 18 players—without the presence of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr—resulted in what Steve Fehr felt might be the best day of negotiating the two sides have had yet, a point with which Bill Daly seemed to agree.
And while it may be hard for Caps' fans to accept, it sounds like it was Penguins' owner Ron Burkle and the bane of the Caps' existence, superstar Sidney Crosby, who might just have talked the NHL off the ledge (ESPN).
So let's allow ourselves a moment to entertain the notion that a season will actually take place and we can all try and put the absurdity of the past 11 weeks or so behind us. If there is a season, will the Caps' locker room be united—or could certain things both said and done cause a rift between players?
I am not talking about the multiple comments Alexander Ovechkin has made about staying in the KHL if the owners decide to cut players' contracts any more (SovSport's Dmitry Ponomarenko, translated by Peter Hassett via sportsnet.ca)—although that will certainly be an issue if Ovi follows through on this threat and stays in Russia.
Most fans and analysts consider that to be a veiled threat with no real teeth behind it. Beyond that, I think much of what Ovi has said the past few months really just echoes the sentiments and feelings of many players around the league.
What might be a bigger issue are comments made by Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik right before Thanksgiving, at a time when negotiations between the two sides had taken a decided turn for the worse.
A series of tweets from Hamrilik appeared through Jedlicka that questioned the leadership of Donald Fehr and the rest of the NHLPA, such as the following:
Are players still united? I dont think so.
That is just part of the message. As reported by outlets such as SBNation, when all of the tweets are pieced together, the total statement from Hamrlik certainly suggest there was dissension in the ranks amongst the players:
I am disgusted. We have to push Fehr to the wall to get the deal. Time is against us. We lost a quarter of the season, it is $425 million. Who will give it back to us? Mr. Fehr? There should be voting between player. Four questions -- yes or no -- then count it. If half of players say lets play, then they should sign new CBA. If there is no season he should leave and we will find someone new. Time is our enemy.
In the wake of such incendiary comments, there was little question that replies of all varieties would be forthcoming. And the replies from Hamrlik's teammates has to raise concerns that the Caps locker room could be divided if the lockout actually does end.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth vocally supported Hamrlik. Neuvirth told TVA Nova Sport of the Czech Republic via NBC Sports the following:
I agree 100 percent with Hammer. This lockout is not about majority of players, I think. It is about several superstars with big contracts.
Was Neuvirth calling out players such as Crosby, or even his own teammate Alexander Ovechkin, and accusing them of being the reason why the lockout was not over yet? It sure sounds that way.
Hamrlik and Neuvirth's comments were not received well at all by Troy Brouwer, the Caps' representative to the NHLPA along with Jason Chimera. Brouwer had a lot to say about the situation to the Washington Post's Katie Carrera:
For me, I think those guys selling us out, being selfish like that and making those comments …Me being on their team, how am I going to trust them as a teammate from now on? Because you know they’re not going to support players in the big scheme of things when you go and you play on the team with them; it’s going to be tough to want to back those guys from now on.
That is a troubling quote from one of the more respected members of the Capitals, no doubt about it.
Then again, you have a player like Karl Alzner who, I think, understands the situation and realizes that things are said in the heat of the moment that might not be completely thought out or completely accurate.
In an interview with the Calgary Herald, Alzner shared his thoughts about Hamrlik's comments:
The first thought that came into my head is knowing Roman and knowing what he’s like, I just had to laugh. Roman’s the kind of guy that just takes it as it comes. He says what’s on his mind. Whether he thinks it through all the time is another story. He just says it. If he doesn’t like practice, he lets you know. If he doesn’t like what you did in the game, he lets you know. I think it’s just frustration setting in.
So what are we to make of all this?
If things progress as well as they did on Tuesday and the lockout is going to end soon, will the locker room of the Washington Capitals be truly divided?
With a shortened season on tap and the Caps having no room to get off to a slow start, a divided locker room could be the kiss of death for this team.
I don't think it will be a long-term issue.
Sure, there is going to have to be a clearing of the air once the team gets back together and I expect a real heart-to-heart talk to take place between Hamrlik and Brouwer.
But as far as Hamrlik is concerned, I think things will be forgotten. We are talking about a veteran player who has given his all during an NHL career that is about to enter a 20th season. He has never won a Stanley Cup and he knows his window of opportunity is closing fast. The last thing he wants is for a canceled season to take place and close that window even more quickly.
Brouwer is about to enter his ninth season in the NHL (although he had a couple of AHL stints in between), but unlike The Hammer, Brouwer has won a Stanley Cup. Brouwer is a smart and responsible guy. I really believe once Hamrlik and Brouwer sit down and let the other know how they feel, that will be the last we hear of the whole situation.
As for Ovi's comments, well, he has been pro-player in a big way since the lockout began, so I don't anticipate any issues there.
Neuvirth, on the other hand, might be a problem.
It is not just the comments he made in support of Hamrlik that are going to be an issue. There are other comments he has made during the offseason that, combined with his lockout related statements, are going to be difficult to completely forget or forgive.
First there were the comments made that Braden Holtby was the weakest competition he had faced in Washington thus far.
As most know by now, it was over the summer when Czech website iSport.cz conducted an interview with Neuvirth.
The interview was translated by several sites, and one in particular, Russianmachineneverbreaks.com, posted the interview.
Some of what Neuvirth had to say raised more than a few eyebrows:
It’s true that until now, I have never been an official number one. But I have played just over a hundred games in NHL. That’s nothing. I’m starting the season sure that I want to play forty/fifty games and I am really sure that I have the weakest competition (Braden Holtby) I’ve ever had. I will try to be number one goalie this season. Finally!
As if calling out the goalie who got the Caps within a whisker of the Eastern Conference finals was not a dumb enough move, Neuvirth then took aim at the face of the franchise, Alexander Ovechkin.
In the same interview with iSport.cz, and as again translated by Russianmachineneverbreaks.com, Neuvirth had this to say about Ovechkin:
He isn’t what he used to be, that’s for sure. And if a team like ours wants to have a chance at the Stanley Cup, we need Ovi to be the best. We all expect that from him; he has to be the real leader. But it’s hard you know, he achieved everything as a player. He was on the absolute top, and then one can only fall down. I just hope that Ovi will stop falling and instead stops and maybe tries to get back on top. As for his attitude in the lockerroom, he is still the same guy. Even when it’s not working out for him, he is in a good mood, he celebrates with the others. He is the right team player. He will stay like that forever.
That was a nice flip-flop at the end there. And, to be fair, even Russianmachineneverbreaks acknowledged in a follow-up article that there could have been some issues and things taken out of context due to the translation of the interview.
Nevertheless, there are some damaging words in there.
Neuvirth will not only have to deal with Brouwer's wrath, but he will have some hard questions to answer from Holtby and Ovechkin as well.
Whatever he might think of Ovi's game, I don't expect the team captain to take those comments lightly at all.
So, while Neuvirth may have done some damage to his status in the locker room, I really can't see anything that Hamrlik said to be anything that will destroy the Caps' chemistry to the point that it undermines whatever length of season we might get.
We are talking about professionals here.
They will address these issues and then move on.
Let's just keep our fingers crossed that they get to move on sooner rather than later.