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Donald Fehr admits NHL players frightened, but it ‘doesn’t mean you make a bad agreement’

Greg Wyshynski
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According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the NHL has lost upwards of $720 million in revenue due to the cancellation of the 2012-13 schedule thus far. The lockout lingers. There's no end in sight. Unless one side blinks.

[Related: Winter Classic likely to be axed this week, according to report]

It's naïve to think that every NHL owner is in lock-step with the League in this work stoppage. But their voices don't matter, either because the teams they own aren't critical to the League's bottom line or because they owe Bettman a favor for getting them into ownership in the first place.

It's even more naïve to think the players are all in lock-step with the NHLPA braintrust, because more and more of them seem edgy about their futures. Did you read Jack Johnson's screed against the owners on his official (NHL.com powered, ironically) blog? The opening line wasn't "[expletive] the owners" or "rollback, schmollback"; it was:

"I want to work! I'm a professional athlete and I want to play hockey."

Translation: I want to play in the NHL.

He's not alone, and NHLPA executive director confirmed as much with Michael Russo of the Star Tribune on Monday during a Q&A session. They're worried.

From the Star Tribune:

Q: Are you worried about fractures in the union or players worried about lost wages? Are some players frightened?

FEHR: Yeah. … But that doesn't mean you make a bad agreement because of it.

This is, as they say, why Donald Fehr gets paid the big bucks: To keep the players in line, their heels dug in for a long battle.

[Nick Cotsonika: Russian fans would rather see Alex Ovechkin than KHL game]

He's accomplished this thus far by encouraging a mass exodus to Europe, to get players paid and to get them playing; as well as by keeping as many of them as possible in the loop on negotiations, either through communication or through an ever-changing cast of players in talks with the NHL.

But now we're looking at a hockey-less November, the elimination of the Winter Classic and a sense of building bitterness on both sides of the table. The players sense the season's now at risk. Some will blink. Fehr has to remind them why this fight is critical.

Via Russo, Fehr spells out where the negotiations are:

Q: What is the core issue here?

A: Well, first of all, why are we not playing? It wasn't a decision the players made. We indicated from our first proposal they (the players) were willing to see their percentage fall over time. The owners first proposal went enormously backwards, so the movement they've made since then is from a proposal that nobody — not even them — took seriously to begin with. So you go into buy a car and let's say it has a $35,000 sticker on it and you offer 15. The dealer laughs at you and says, 'maybe 33.' And you say, 'No, I'll improve my offer to 20. I improved it 33 percent.' Well it still doesn't mean it has any reasonable chance of success at any point. It's an improvement off a number that had zero chance of success.

And so you have to view their position from that standpoint. When we came in (August 14), we came in with a real offer from the beginning, what I had hoped for is a real negotiation. So far we haven't had it.

(One other interesting exchange: Russo asked Fehr if the NHL has mentioned expansion. Said Fehr, "We asked them if they have any plans for expansion, if it's even on the calendar or anything like that, and they've said no." Can't imagine the League would even dream about mentioning expansion when definition of hockey-related revenue has been at the core of this dispute.)

[Also: Wayne Simmonds taunted with racist chants after fight in Czech League]

Will the players crack? Two speculative scenarios in which they wouldn't:

1. Their anger, resentment, intense loathing of Gary Bettman fuels their solidarity in a way that's been hinted at by some players by hasn't exactly been quantified. That they're in this for the ultimate victory: Ousting Bettman.

2. The season goes to hell, Fehr targets the salary cap and the players strap on their camo for a real labor war.

One hopes rational — and as Fehr wishes, unconditional — talks can head that doomsday off before it happens.

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