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NHL labor talks about to begin

CHICAGO – The head of the NHL players’ union said Monday that negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement will begin “very quickly” – perhaps as early as this week – and didn’t rule out talks stretching into the season.

New NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr said negotiations will begin after Wednesday’s meeting of the NHLPA’s executive board, though he did not specify a date. He was in Chicago for three days of union talks.

The NHL canceled the 2004-05 season before a labor deal was reached that included a salary cap for the first time. The agreement expires Sept. 15.

Fehr was asked whether a work stoppage was inevitable.

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

He also shrugged off concerns about having a deal in place by the time the season begins.

“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,” he said.

Asked if that could happen in this instance, Fehr said, “All I know is that in baseball, there were any number of occasions in which we played while the parties were continuing to negotiate.”

A work stoppage, he said, would be a “last resort.”

“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 added. “It’s unfortunate because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, that’s not going to be true this time.”

The league declined comment.

Fehr said he expected 40 to 60 players to attend the meetings, and some of the game’s biggest stars were in attendance on Monday, including Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews.

“I think everybody has to be involved,” Ovechkin said. “It’s our lives.”

Toews said, “I think it’s important for all of us.”

He called it a “learning process,” particularly for players who were not around for the lockout, and he senses an urgency to reach an agreement.

“I don’t see why not,” he said. “That’s obviously what everyone wants.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman said during the Stanley Cup finals last month that he believes the labor scene is different this time around. One big change is that the players are now being led by Fehr, the ex-head of the powerful baseball union.

Fehr is working with a group that was in disarray following the lockout and went through several changes in leadership including a scandal that led to the demise of former executive director Ted Saskin, who was accused of ordering spying of player e-mail.

Fehr was brought in as an adviser before becoming the union’s head about a year and a half ago. He has since spent time catching up on hockey and his members’ needs. He has been having informal discussions with Bettman for some time.

“From our standpoint, the starting place is the players made enormous concessions the last time around,” 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.”

Bettman said last month that the league had record revenues in excess of $3.1 billion, but he refused to say how much of that was profit. How to divide the revenue is a huge issue, with owners wanting to cut the players’ share from 57 percent.

“We want to keep it where it is and they want to probably bring it down,” Phoenix’s 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.”

How deep the sides dig in could go a long way toward determining whether the NHL becomes the third major sports league in the past two years to go through a work stoppage. The NBA played a shortened season with a condensed schedule after a labor dispute pushed the start of the season back to late December, and the NFL went through a lockout that wiped out most of the offseason training program a year ago and delayed training camp.

Fehr is already showing signs he won’t be a pushover. The union scuttled the NHL’s plans to realign and switch from two three-division conferences to four seven- or eight-team conferences in January, because it was not consulted.

Another issue is the Olympics.

The players want to compete. Bettman has long made it clear that he doesn’t see the benefit in it for the league, even though it provides many players to the Olympics right in the midst of the NHL season.

For now, the league wasn’t conceding that a stoppage is inevitable.

“I don’t know if it’s inevitable,” Doan said. “That threat’s there. That’s what’s going to get everything done. Everything tends to go to the deadline of what’s going to cost people the most. We’ll just have to deal with that.”

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