Owners should fear Fehr's trump card

NEW YORK -- The answer should have sent mini shockwaves into the hearts of NHL owners, even if you had to read between the lines to find the true meaning.

At the very end of Donald Fehr’s news conference Thursday, I asked the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association whether a prolonged labor impasse could see his side reconsider the existence of a salary cap in the NHL.

After all, this is the same man who was able to fight off a cap in baseball, the only one of the Big Four pro sports to not have one.

"What I have said before and the only thing I am prepared to say now is that if we get past that point, then the players are as free to reconsider their positions as the owners. That's all I can say," Fehr said.

Privately, some members on the league side were relieved this summer when the NHLPA’s opening proposal did not attempt to blow up the current system and remove the cap. Instead, while it remains a proposal that the league finds ultra unacceptable, at least it deals within the parameters of the cap world.

But there are those who wonder if Fehr is keeping his ultimate trump card for the right moment way down the road. As of right now, players on hand for the two-day meeting said the removal of the cap was not talked about a whole lot as a point of focus. That’s because it’s way too early to even go there.

My sense is that if and when Fehr ever plays that dramatic card, it’s only after this process has dragged on for months on end and only in response to what might be offers or positions from the league that further aggravate the NHLPA membership.

There’s another important factor in all this: Fehr will need to know if his players have the stomach to enter what would be a nuclear war if the NHLPA tries to eliminate the cap.

All of which is way, way, way down the road, if at all ever a reality.

But Fehr’s response Thursday certainly left the impression that at the very least he’s open to the idea if he feels it’s the right thing to do. Know this, fighting a salary cap is akin to a drug for Fehr. It’s a religion to him. He truly believes in the flaws of a cap system and the merits of a free-market system.

The league’s leaders aren’t stupid. They fully understand there’s a possibility that at some point in time Fehr plays that card. And for the league, it’s a total no-go. The owners will never go back to a non-cap system.

"That certainly wouldn't be a positive development in this negotiation," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman responded Thursday when asked about the possibility of the NHLPA attempting to eliminate the salary cap.

The NHL commissioner also went on to say that it’s because of the cap system that he believes there’s been "competitive balance," pointing to the facts that there have been seven different Stanley Cup champions and league revenues have risen from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion over the course of the seven-year CBA that expires at 11:59 p.m. ET Saturday.

Well, it stands to reason the NHL would never consider giving up the cap. No sports league ever would. But if this labor impasse prolongs into November and December, it does invite Fehr to start having new thoughts about his next move.

If you want to keep the genie in the bottle, the ultimate scenario for the league and its owners is to try to find movement over the next month and somehow bridge the incredible gap that currently exists between the two sides’ cap-based proposals.

Easier said than done, of course. But if I were the NHL, I wouldn’t want to give the NHLPA a chance to head down the road of a salary cap discussion. That’s playing with fire.