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NHL players free to speak about CBA negotiations while owners are muzzled

CHICAGO - NHL players may have a small leg up on league owners heading into the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement.

While team officials are under a gag order with talks set to begin as soon as this week, players are free to speak publicly about the negotiations.

Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, has no problem with his membership discussing the issues.

"From my standpoint, I've never believed in gag rules," Fehr said Monday as the union opened its executive board meetings. "I think they're inconsistent with fundamental notions of free speech. ... It won't be at my recommendation that we get into that."

While the NHL hasn't commented on the exact parameters of its gag order, it was clearly in effect early last week after the board of governors meeting wrapped up in Las Vegas. A number of executives politely declined interview requests from reporters.

Even Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke—as opinionated as they come in the hockey world—declined to answer a CBA-related question after the draft wrapped up at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.

"If we talk about collective bargaining matter specifics, it's a very healthy fine that I can't afford," said Burke.

Fehr is puzzled by the league's policy.

"I would ask why they would do that and then the second question that I would ask is: What is it they're afraid (owners and team executives) will say?" he said.

Formal talks on a new CBA are expected to commence "very quickly" after the NHLPA meetings wrap up on Wednesday afternoon, according to Fehr.

Such discussions in the board room are usually accompanied by a fairly aggressive public relations war—something that was in full effect during the contentious round of bargaining that saw the 2004-05 season wiped out by a lockout.

Fehr believes there's a way to successfully guide union members without banning them from speaking publicly.

"It doesn't mean you don't suggest to people that, in terms of bargaining, there are some approaches that may be more beneficial than others, but we don't have anybody standing with a hammer over somebody's head ready to clock him," said Fehr.

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