Fehr fires first shot in NHL labor talks

Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr haven't yet begun negotiations but the mood already is somber. Getty Images, AP Photo

CHICAGO -- The first salvo, if you will, of the upcoming labor negotiations between NHL players and owners was fired on Monday as players gathered for three days of meetings in Chicago.

"From our standpoint, the starting place is the players made enormous concessions the last time around," union head Donald Fehr said. "The second item that comes to mind is the game generates a lot more revenue than it did before. And you put those two things together, it ought to point you in the direction as to where this negotiation should go."

Sounds simple when he says it. Especially coming from a man who wasn't around the last time the sides negotiated a deal, and in the process lost a season of hockey. He also represents a contingent of players who weren't in the league at that time.

“I think I was in high school, playing midget hockey," Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews said. “I remember very well. All I know I was really excited to watch hockey again when it came back on."

It came back in 2005-06 after the previous season was canceled. And when it came back it looked vastly different both on the ice and off. A salary cap was in place for the first time and dramatic rule changes took effect.

Undoubtedly, the addition of the salary cap is one of those “enormous concessions" Fehr is talking about. It sounds like this time around they aren't going to give as much and owners better expect it. In fact the players want some changes.

“There are a lot of things they (the players) would like to see differently in the current deal," Fehr said. “We'll have to see. When it comes to the ultimate you want to end up with an agreement that all the players can be satisfied with."

Escrow issues, re-entry waivers and making sure guaranteed contracts stay just that -- guaranteed -- are some points that might come up. But ultimately it's about the pie. Right now the players get 57 percent of revenue. The owners will want a reduction in that number just as the NBA owners asked for -- and got -- last year.

"We want to keep it where it is and they want to probably bring it down," Phoenix forward Shane Doan said. "I understand that's the way it is. Everybody wants more. I'm sure they do, too. It's part of labor. That's the way it is."

Negotiations haven't begun but already doom and gloom seems to be permeating the process.

"None of that is coming from our side," Fehr said. "That's the first thing. Secondly, we have not made a proposal. We haven't heard an owners' proposal."

The current deal expires on Sept. 15.

"There's nothing magic about Sept. 15. The law is that if you don't have a new agreement, and as long as both sides are willing to keep negotiating, you can continue to play under the terms of the old one until you reach an agreement," Fehr explained.

Fehr cited baseball as a sport which did as much: Played under the old rules until a new agreement could be reached. It's hard to imagine that scenario occurring here but at least it's an option.

In this particular instance both sides have some apparent leverage. The owners usually can hold out longer than players. It's the players who will miss the bi-weekly paychecks starting in October and it's the players who have to deal with a membership of 700. The owners have 30 members and though agreement among them can sometimes be difficult they will ultimately be more in step than the 700 on the other side. But a league source says missing more than a couple months of the season won't be acceptable.

The NHL's marquee event is the Winter Classic and for the first time this season it crosses over between Canada and the United States. On Jan. 1 the Toronto Maple Leafs will take on the Detroit Red Wings in 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. The NHL does not want to cancel this event and the players must know this.

It's too early to make bold predictions but at least worst case scenarios can be offered. There is a good chance training camps won't open on time and it's possible the season could be shortened as it was several labor disputes ago, in 1994-95, but at least there is a good chance there will be hockey when the weather turns cold.

When it comes to professional sports and labor negotiations, that should sound like a positive. At least there is something for both sides to lose in a prolonged work stoppage.

"The problem that we've had in the salary-cap sports going back 20-plus years now is that in many instances, historically -- I'm not saying it'll be true this time -- a lockout has been the negotiation strategy of choice," Fehr said. "It's unfortunate because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, that's not going to be true this time."