CHICAGO -- It could have been an all-star team.
First Alex Ovechkin strode through the hotel lobby and into a meeting room. Soon Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Shea Weber, Shane Doan and 50 other NHLers followed -- as sure a sign as any about how seriously members of the NHL Players' Association are taking their last set of meetings before negotiations begin on a new collective bargaining agreement.
"I think everybody has to be involved," Ovechkin said Monday. "It's the future for everybody. ... It's our lives."
This is uncharted territory for the two-time Hart Trophy winner. Even though Ovechkin seems like he's been everywhere since taking the NHL by storm, this was the first time during his seven-year career that he's attended a union meeting in North America.
Donald Fehr has repeatedly talked about how important it is for a wide variety of players to be engaged in the process. Now that he's reached the moment of truth -- formal CBA talks with the NHL will begin "very quickly" after this session ends Wednesday, according to Fehr -- it appears the NHLPA's executive director got what he wanted.
"It's absolutely clear to me that they are (engaged)," said Fehr. "This is true from the youngest player that just got here and is sort of looking around trying to figure out if he belongs and some of the biggest stars that we've got. ...
"I expect a very wide participation from all parts of the membership."
This is a change from the last round of CBA negotiations, which were conducted by former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow with a seven-player executive board and saw the 2004-05 season wiped out by a lockout.
Some of the veterans who lived through that experience arrived here feeling more optimistic than the last time around. There may be uncertainty in the air, but there isn't the same sense of doom.
"The negotiation part of it is different in the fact it's really more about numbers," said Doan. "Last time it was more about concept. I think that's different and hopefully it gets worked out."
The CBA is scheduled to expire on Sept. 15 -- although Fehr pointed out that there is the potential to continue negotiating beyond that date without a work stoppage.
"By the way, there's nothing magic about Sept. 15," he said. "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 playing under the terms of the old one until you reach an agreement."
This one will be reached with the input of some fresh faces.
Toews was in high school when the 2004-05 NHL season was wiped out and remembers how excited he was when hockey eventually returned. Now he intends to play an active role in the negotiation of the NHL's next deal.
"We need as many guys, whether they're big names or not, to be involved," said Toews. "The more we can meet like this and talk about things and just kind of feel it out, the more we'll know about what guys want. It's kind of what I'm here for."
--The Canadian Press