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Baseball union chief Donald Fehr lends a hand to rebuilding hockey union

Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association since December 1985, told 20 player reps essentially how things work over at his union, and what he felt were things in his collective agreement that worked well. "There's no secret to what we do," Fehr told reporters afterward. "Basically all of our meetings, except meetings relating to something confidential about an individual player, are open to any player and we always have them present and participating in negotiating meetings.

"And all-around communication, discussion, involvement and making certain that when key decisions have to be made they're made by the players, and not by somebody else - that's what we do."

Fehr's talk was part of the NHLPA's three-day meeting, which wraps up Thursday with an important vote regarding next season's salary cap and a decision on the next step in finding Ted Saskin's replacement as executive director.

The player reps also heard Wednesday from former NBA union executive Charles Grantham and veteran Toronto lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, one of Canada's foremost constitutional, labour and administrative law experts.

The player reps are hoping all the advice they get will help in deciding how to restructure their organization and also in forming a search committee to hire their next leader. The hockey union has been looking for a new executive director to replace Saskin, who was fired this spring over accusations he ordered the reading of players' e-mails. A full investigative report by Toronto lawyer Sheila Block remains on target to be concluded in August.

Meanwhile, the feeling at the NHLPA these days is one of rebirth. Members are confident that out of the ashes of a nasty bout of in-fighting, caused by a divisive lockout in 2004-05, will come a new unified group. And a new way of doing things.

"I can tell you that I'm impressed with the seriousness of the group, with their demeanour," Fehr said of the player reps. "I think they have a gut-level understanding, which is always the first step, of what the task is in front of them. If I were a betting man, which I'm not, I would guess that over the next several months moving forward you're going to see a reconstituted organization which they're all going to be very proud of.

"At least that was the indication I had today."

While Fehr would not divulge any specifics from his talk with the player reps, one can assume he didn't hide his feelings on the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, which for the first time in history included a team-by-team salary cap. Fehr's union is the last among the major North American pro sports not to have a hard limit on spending.

"I think as many of you know if you follow baseball that's not something that we think has worked for us," Fehr said of a salary cap.

The current NHL agreement with the players expires after the 2010-11 season although the union reserves the right to re-open after the fourth season, 2008-09. But one has to wonder why the union would want to. Look no further than Kimmo Timonen, who is still dizzy from signing a six-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers that pays him US$6.3 million a year.

Just three years removed from a year-long lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, NHL players next season will likely earn more in average salary than they did before the lockout.

The salary cap, meanwhile, continues to rise at an alarming pace, which is music to the players' ears. From the original US$39 million in 2005-06 to US$44 million this past season, next year's figure will run between US$48 million to just over US$50 million depending on Thursday's vote by player reps.

As stipulated in the collective agreement, a five per cent "inflator" automatically gets tacked on top of the figure that the league and union accountants calculate from hockey-related revenues of over US$2.1 billion - unless the NHLPA and NHL agree to do otherwise. Last summer both sides agreed to zero per cent inflation instead of five per cent, the union worried about having to pay back owners in escrow payments if they earned more than their allotted share.

The bottom line, inflator or no inflator, is that players cannot eat up more than 55 per cent of revenues next season.

Without the five per cent inflator, the salary cap would stand at a little more than US$48 million next season. If the player reps vote to keep the five per cent inflator, then the cap likely stands at more than US$50 million.


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