Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Real NHL battle could just be about to warm up

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They're firing pellets right now, but it will escalate into gunfire unless peace talks begin soon -- and quickly show signs of bearing fruit.

The NHL and NHLPA are engaged in a staring match with very little progress being made and a Sept. 15 deadline getting bigger in the windshield.

The collective bargaining agreement, a mechanism used by the league and the players' union to govern player matters, including compensation, negotiated after the lost season of 2004-05 is about to expire and despite good times for both the league and players, common ground appears to be elusive.

To that end, the NHL has filed a procedural written notice to the union stating it intends to alter the current agreement. The CBA requires notice be issued 120 days prior to the end of the agreement by either party intending to end or change the agreement. Without such notice the deal would have rolled over into another season.

Union boss Donald Fehr has stated he wants to wait until all players are available to take part before beginning substantive talks, which translates to after the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Neither side has indicated where it wants to take negotiations.

Naturally, with the loss of all hockey-related revenues becoming a possibility, the NHL and its league members are beginning to look at their schedules and put a hold on routine business.

First it was the NHL cancelling season-opening games in Europe and now clubs are beginning to scrap prospect tournaments.

The Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks all took part in a prospects tournament in Penticton, B.C. last summer and all were expected to return this year, but those plans have now been scrubbed.

Last summer Jets fans were able to get an early book on first-round pick Mark Scheifele at the prospects tournament, but this year's bonus babies won't be on display in a similar manner.

Gag order

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has instituted a strict gag order on clubs where the CBA is concerned. Bettman and Bettman alone will talk on this issue.

A request to the Jets on the subject of the prospects tournament didn't even get a reply on Wednesday. That's how touchy folks are on anything remotely close to the CBA. No one wants to be the cause of their organization getting hit with a $250,000 fine.

The NHLPA, however, has placed no such conditions on itself and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr, brother of Donald Fehr, had this to say at a sports lawyers conference over the weekend.

"I think it is fair to say that if the approach is what many are predicting: That the owners come in and say we have to shave 5, 10, 15, 25, 30 -- pick a number -- points off the percentage of revenues in the cap that players receive, there will be some players who say, there may be a lot of players who say, 'Wait a minute... We already gave at the office. We made massive concessions last time that were designed to fix your so-called problems. If it has not fixed your so-called problems, we need to have a long, hard discussion about what those problems are and what we should do about it,'" said Fehr.

The NFL and NBA recently went through brief lockouts as owners sought and received a bigger percentage of the revenue pie.

Currently the NHL's salary cap is based on the players dividing up 57 per cent of all hockey-related revenues. This year that percentage resulted in each team having a salary cap around $63 million. The cap is expected to rise to $69 million by July 1 when teams begin to court free agents.

There has been lots of speculation that owners want to pull back on the salary throttle by trimming the players' share.

Bettman hasn't offered much on the CBA, continually saying there is no update to offer. The league is confident in its position in the public eye as the players traditionally are viewed cynically by fans in these types of exchanges.

Silence is on Bettman's side in the public relations battle.

The same, however, cannot be said for the status of regular season hockey this fall.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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