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Players' association head Donald Fehr says players unified in the face of an NHL lockout

NHLPA head Donald Fehr said Friday the players are prepared for the eventuality of an owners' lockout if a new collective bargaining agreement can't be reached.

Fehr wrapped up a meeting held over parts of two days with about 40 players at a hotel outside of O'Hare International Airport. The union will hold similar informational meetings next week in Kelowna, B.C. and Toronto.

Fehr said it's no surprise for players to hear about the possibility of a lockout, especially since both the NFL and NBA have recently weathered shutdowns.

Players are not surprised and fully understand what the ramifications of a work stoppage would mean, since most of them either lived through or have teammates who were playing when the NHL shut down in 2004, he said.

"It was interested. It was focused. It was sobered," Fehr said, describing the tone of the meetings.

"Players understand what is going on, understand what the issues are and understand how the owners' proposal will affect them, understand how this compares to what happened seven years ago. ... understand that this will affect their lives if we can't find a way through this in the immediate future."

The league wants the players to give up a significant amount of salary to stabilize the industry while the union maintains that goal would be best accomplished with the wealthy teams doing more to help their struggling counterparts.

Fehr is scheduled to resume formal discussions with the league Aug. 22.

When that starts, the league and the union will have just 24 days left to reach a new agreement and avoid a lockout. The current CBA runs out on Sept. 15—by which time Commissioner Gary Bettman wants a deal in place. The regular season is set to start Oct. 11.

The entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout and then the players eventually accepted a 24 per cent rollback on salaries and a cap. Despite the wide philosophical gap between the two sides, Fehr said there is still time to reach an agreement.

"If there is a mutual will to get this done, if we can find a common platform around which to construct an agreement, then obviously there is plenty of time in which to do that," he said, adding he's out of the prediction business.

"Unfortunately, what you saw in the last two negotiations in football and basketball, and can be argued what happened in hockey in 2004, is that the lockout was the strategy of first choice, not the strategy of last resort," Fehr continued.

"I hope that's not true this time, but time will tell. Having said that, when Gary says it's much more preferable to get a deal done before Sept. 15, we agree with him."

Phoenix Coyotes right-wing David Moss said the players are prepared and have discussed all eventualities.

"The league are the ones saying that if we don't come to a decision. ... The players are still very optimistic and hopeful that things will get done on time, and we're working in that fashion," said Moss, who played last season with the Calgary Flames.

"The players are preparing there's going to be a season; they do all the things leading up to that until we're told otherwise."

Under the owners' proposal, the players' share in revenue would be cut from 57 per cent to 43 per cent and would include a change to the way the salary cap is calculated. Instead of being set at US$8 million above the midpoint, the upper limit would be reduced to $4 million above. As a result, the salary cap would drop to $50.8 million next season, which is below where the floor currently rests.

The league also called for the elimination of salary arbitration, contract limits of five years (with equal money paid each year, essentially eliminating signing bonuses) and 10 years of service before unrestricted free agency kicks in.

The NHLPA estimated the league's proposal would cost players approximately $450 million per season.

Fehr designed his own system, including an expanded revenue-sharing plan that would see the wealthy teams distribute more than $250 million per season to the ones having financial struggles.

"One of the things the players asked me," Fehr said, "is, 'Why did we give them what we did the last time if this was going to be the result this time?'

"One of the things which appears to happen in the capped sports, is no matter what the economic circumstances are claimed to be, whether they are claimed to be losses as we had in basketball this last time, or whether there's an acknowledgment there are no financial problems, as we had in the NFL this last time, it doesn't matter. The position is, we have a cap and the cap has to be lowered.

"That seems to be the case."

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