- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- After two days of meetings with players, NHLPA union boss Donald Fehr declared them as unified as ever. In fact, that’s been the case since last month.
"It took anyone that plays hockey about the time it took to read the [owners’] proposal to understand what it would mean to them," Fehr said after meetings wrapped up Friday. "Whatever lingering doubts there were that the players were not on the same page ceased to be there."
The players might be winning the public relations battle with the owners, but it’s not getting them any closer to a deal. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and a lockout looms. About the only way a deal could get done from the players' perspective is if they develop amnesia -- they simply need to forget about what they gave the owners in 2004: An entire season was lost, salaries were rolled back and a salary cap was enacted.
"Hockey players have lived through or have teammates and friends who lived through the last lockout," Fehr explained. "They’ve heard about the owners’ lockout in 1994. They watched on television what happened with the football and the basketball players. ... The last thing the threat or a suggestion of a lockout is, is a surprise to the players. ... They understand how this compares to seven years ago and what the players gave up then."
And therein lays the crux of the problem. The players feel they gave the owners all that was needed for the long-term health of the league, and now the owners are coming back, asking for just as much, if not more. The players tried their hand at a proposal, which was seemingly dismissed by the league.
“We did not do what a lot of people would characterize as make a proposal which was just way over the top,” Fehr explained.
Fehr was quick to remind everyone the very definition of a "salary cap" limits the money-making ability of his constituents and after giving the owners so much last time around, the players are simply not going to do the same. But the players caved in 2004-05 after a season was lost, so they played hardball for as long as they could. The problem, of course, is the owners can typically hold out without profits from the sport longer than players can hold out without a paycheck.
Fehr wouldn’t predict what would happen over the next month, but it’s clear a major change of heart has to happen to avoid a lockout.
"The players are pretty unified, and if there was any doubt about their understanding of this negotiation, that evaporated when we got the owners' proposal," Fehr said. "The hope is we’ll find a way through the disparate positions which now exist."
As for that public relations battle, does it really matter to the owners if they lose in that arena but win in the negotiating room? They seem content in waiting it out, just as they did last time around. Fehr thinks lockouts in other sports as well as hockey were instituted by choice, not necessity. In other words, the lockouts were used as a negotiating tactic. It would be hard to argue that description doesn’t apply this time around as well.
Fehr said the rhetoric to the players regarding a lockout hasn’t changed; they always knew it was a possibility as a CBA approaches expiration. But in describing the two days of meetings as "interested, focused and sobered," the reality of the situation is at hand: A lockout is more likely to happen than less. Both sides seem ready for it.
7dScott Burnside and Craig Custance