This is the culmination of two years of preparation for Don Fehr and the NHL Players' Association – the rewriting of their constitution, the selection of Fehr as executive director, the rebuilding of the organization, the education of both the staff and players, the reuniting of the union.
The NHLPA is holding executive board meetings Monday through Wednesday in Chicago, its last major gathering before labor talks. The staff and about 50 players will discuss issues and strategy, then announce their negotiating committee.
It's time to get down to business. Talks could begin as soon as this week.
Expect to hear optimism that a deal can be reached before the collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, contrasting with the pessimism many feel about the 2012-13 season opening on time.
As far as the players are concerned, this is the starting point: They made enormous concessions after the lockout of 2004-05 – a salary cap, a 24-percent pay cut and more – and the game has grown from a $2.1-billion business into a $3.3-billion business. Why would the owners lock out the players again?
"I don't think anyone on either side wouldn't tell you that we want to get back out there and we want a fair deal that lets everyone continue to play hockey and not miss any time," said St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. "With the ability to bring fans to this game and grow the sport, it'd be a shame if we miss any time, and I think everyone's on that same page, and that's encouraging."
The system doesn't seem headed for a complete overhaul. This CBA is likely to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Backes said both sides are entering talks "without looking for sweeping change," adding, "I think that's why there was a lockout last time."
"There are certain parts of this agreement that we clearly think need improvement, but I would say that from both sides of the pew," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "I think there are things that can work better for the players as well. I have no doubt. So I think it would be a worthwhile process just to go through the CBA and make it work better than it's worked."
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But how exactly? That's the rub.
The NHL hasn't unveiled its bargaining position to the players yet, and Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman have been tight-lipped about the details even among the board of governors and general managers, for fear of leaks that could compromise them.
How will the players feel if the league asks them to reduce their share of revenues from 57 percent to some dramatically lower number? How will they feel if the league asks them to eliminate or lower the salary floor, which requires teams to spend a minimum amount? How will they feel if the league asks them to restrict the structure of contracts, so players and teams can't sign long-term deals that skirt the cap?
Some worry the league will ask for the elimination of guaranteed contracts, even if they think that might just be strategic, something the league can take back later as a concession.
"Everybody understands what happened last time, and that's part of the backdrop of what these negotiations will be about," Fehr said. "I want to caution you: It's not the only thing. You don't look at things in isolation. But it's there."
How will the league feel if the players respond by asking for increased revenue sharing, so the rich teams have to give more support to the poor teams? How will the league feel if the players ask for the elimination of escrow, so money isn't held out of their paychecks to make sure the owners haven’t spent too much? How will the league feel if the players want to change the supplemental discipline system, or scheduling, or any number of other things?
Fehr is expected to introduce creative concepts from economics to marketing, and it remains to be seen how receptive the owners will be, especially because Fehr, once the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has a background in another sport.
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This will not be a simple haggling over the owners' and players' shares of the pie.
"I don't think this is a one-issue negotiation," Daly said. "I think there are a number of issues. Now, you can prioritize issues, and there are certainly less critical issues than there were in 2004. But this isn't a one-issue negotiation."
The bottom line is that no one knows until the sides actually sit down to the table. They will constantly reevaluate their positions during the summer, and unless they can reach a deal quickly and quietly, we won't know whether either side feels it's necessary to miss games until there are games to be missed.
"You don't have the kind of atmosphere going in that necessarily pre-stages a conflict," Fehr said. "We don't seem to have that. But I've been in both situations before, and whether you have it or don't, that doesn't necessarily predict the outcome."
That is why Fehr has done so much work to get to this point, traveling extensively, holding countless meetings, going back to basics. He has taught the players how a union is supposed to work, stressing their involvement.
During the last negotiation, the NHLPA's negotiating committee had only a handful of players. As the negotiations dragged on, the lines of communication broke down. The players didn't stay engaged. The union broke.
This time, the NHLPA's negotiating committee will have about 30 players. Each team will have its own mini-negotiating committee. Every player will be invited to every formal bargaining session, and though clearly not every player will be interested and able to attend, the union expects a stronger presence.
"I want players involved anytime that they want to be involved, and from my vantage point, that's just about all the time," Fehr said. "Players will learn more in one bargaining session than they will in 10 meetings with me."
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They also will project strength and solidarity to the other side, of course. While they want to make a deal, the players also want to show the owners they won't roll over and take a deal just to avoid a lockout.
The players are more organized and better prepared than they used to be, but it's easy to be that way now. It's harder to remain that way when the negotiation gets mind-numbing with their membership recovering from the grueling season, spread out around the globe.
"I think it's always better to have players involved, because those are the guys that do play and they represent all the 700-plus players," said Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, one of the many European players who is spending the summer at home. "They know from their point of view what would probably make the game better."
Those who are involved directly have to inform those who are not and gather their feedback, via conference calls, Skype, e-mail, internal websites, whatever.
"Taking advantage of that membership is something that I don't think happened in the past," Backes said. "It was a few guys that had that ability, and when the deal was done, they brought it to the rest of the guys. Without disclosing everything, I think the organization and the inclusion of really everyone in the union is something that is important moving forward and something that Don's really instilled. You can't have 20 guys making a deal for 700, because it just doesn't work."
When Bettman first used the $3.3-billion figure at the Stanley Cup Final, Fehr said he had never heard it before. He said it was higher than some of the estimates the union had been using. He said it was great.
"We have to hope that that continues," he said, "and we've got to hope that nothing interrupts it."
"I can just hope," said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "I think we all hope that things are going to turn out good, of course. But it is an important deal, and we need to take it very seriously."
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