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 more than 40 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 held in North America.
He’s come here to stump for the importance of having NHLers participate in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia while also familiarizing himself with some of the other key issues expected to be on the table.
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 as though 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. You’ll have a bunch of players of varying levels of celebrity that will be here this week and there’ll be all kinds of players coming through the bargaining meetings once they start. …
“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 ultimately saw the 2004-05 season wiped out by a lockout.
A negotiating committee of more than 30 players will be unveiled this week and Fehr is encouraging any other member of the union to attend bargaining sessions as well. If it all goes to plan, the NHLPA should have strength in numbers.
Interestingly, Fehr intends to take time during this week’s meetings to review the factors that led to labour strife and a lost season last time around. The unspoken part of that strategy is that he wants to bring young players up to speed on what went wrong in an effort to avoid seeing the mistakes of the past repeated.
The union’s membership has dropped sharply in age since the lockout thanks to rule changes that opened up the game and encouraged teams to go younger. Toews was in high school during the last round of negotiations and remembers how excited he was when hockey eventually returned.
Now he intends to make his voice heard behind the scenes.
“The league is very young right now … but we need to show that we’re together and we’re willing to learn and see what we can do this summer,” said Toews.
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. That tactic was used during his long tenure with baseball’s union.
“By the way, there’s nothing magic about Sept. 15,” said Fehr. “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.”
That suggestion might not be as far-fetched as it first sounds.
The hostility and impending sense of doom that hovered over the last round of talks is nowhere to be found now. Instead, there is uncertainty and even some cautious optimism, especially from veteran players who have already sacrificed a year of their careers and see a more peaceful outcome on the horizon this time around.
“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.”
It’s clear there will be a number of players helping Fehr navigate the ship.
The attendees at this week’s meeting offer a true cross-section of the sport—with players who just completed their entry-level contracts and those on 35-and-over deals, not to mention everything else in between.
“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.”
Added Ovechkin: “It’s our future, so I think it’s important for us.”