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NHL players decide not to re-open collective bargaining agreement

MONTREAL - The NHL Players' Association sees no reason to wait until 2011 to start negotiating its next collective bargaining agreement with the league.

Even though the union officially announced Friday that it has decided not to re-open the current CBA at the end of the season, it believes there's room for both sides to start discussing changes to the document before it expires in two years.

NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly hopes that approach might help avoid any trouble down the road.

"There are many aspects of the deal that we are not satisfied with and I'm sure that several of the owners would probably make the same statement," he said. "If either side identifies issues of serious concern, we should seek to isolate, address and resolve those issues if possible.

"That way when we arrive at the 11th hour in this deal, hopefully we will have the platform of our next agreement substantially completed. All that should be left are a handful of issues to be resolved."

The current CBA is set to expire in September 2011 - although the union holds the right to extend that deadline by a year.

One thing the NHLPA hopes to establish in the next deal is gaining more say in major financial matters pertaining to the league. That could include everything from possible franchise relocation to new television deals to international events.

However, none of those issues was deemed important enough for the players to terminate the current CBA completely. The union's executive board, comprised of representatives from all 30 teams, made that decision in a vote on Thursday night.

Ultimately, it's impossible to ignore how much they've benefited under the current system. The average salary was US$1.8 million the season before the lockout and is $2.2 million today.

"It's worked out for (the owners) and for the players," said Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan. "The important thing is that we work together and try to keep building the game. That's kind of one of the things that came out of that CBA."

The relationship has been referred to as a partnership by some, but Kelly made it clear that he doesn't exactly see it that way.

Still, with the salary cap now directly tied to league revenues there's no avoiding the fact that the league and players' association share a mutual interest in the success of the sport. And neither side has any desire to see it harmed by another work stoppage.

That seemed to be another factor in the players' decision to forge on with this CBA.

"The players certainly appreciate that another lockout would have been enormously damaging to the sport," said Kelly. "We seem to have rebounded pretty well from the last one, the sport has grown substantially each of the past three years.

"The guys that went through the lockout, it was a difficult time for those guys. It's almost like you're still recovering from the last hangover and do you really want to go out and do this all over again?"

On that point at least, there's total agreement from both sides.

"This announcement ... affirms that the system is working in the manner anticipated from its inception," commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "We are extremely pleased that the league and the players now can move forward together and that the fans' focus can remain on the ice, where it belongs."

But even with two more years on the CBA, off-ice issues will continue to grab headlines.

The NHL's board of governors received a pretty bleak economic outlook during meetings in December and many believe the salary cap is poised to drop for the first time after next season. On top of that, there have been reports of serious financial losses in markets like Phoenix and Nashville.

Kelly was frank when asked about the possibility of relocation.

"I can't point to anything specific, but I would not at all be surprised to see a team move in the next five years," he said. "Maybe more than one."

In some ways, it might make labour harmony even more important in the years ahead.

There is evidence that the league and players' association are willing to work on changes to the CBA now. They recently altered language in the deal that will allow them to keep staging regular-season games in Europe and hold another World Cup in 2011.

Potentially contentious issues include the NHL's participation in the Olympics beyond 2010 and whether the league wants introduce non-guaranteed contracts.

While Kelly knows both sides will bargain hard on certain issues, he hopes they're both able to keep the big picture in mind.

"We all know what's in the long-term best interest of the game, and that is continuing to play games," said Kelly. "Not to have a lockout. Not to have a strike.

"It is out there, it's always a potential in any kind of labour management relationship. I think we're going to strive to work very hard with the league to work through those problems before we get to September 2011 or September 2012."



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