PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The NHL Players' Association will be ready to start formal discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement as soon as next week.
A negotiating committee of more than 30 players is expected to be announced when the union's executive board meets in Chicago from Monday to Wednesday.
The NHLPA is expecting a fairly high turnout for the annual meetings, which have taken on added importance this year with the current CBA set to expire Sept. 15. As many as 55 players could attend, with sources indicating that high-profile union members Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews are expected to be among them.
It will give executive director Donald Fehr a chance to go over his negotiating strategy with players before opening talks with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Those two men will be heading to the bargaining table in the very near future.
"We'll be prepared and have been prepared to start bargaining with the owners," Fehr told The Canadian Press on Friday ahead of the NHL draft. "I think those (talks) will start — although not announcing the precise date yet — very quickly after the end of our meeting."
The NHLPA's approach to CBA negotiations will borrow heavily from the lessons Fehr learned while spending more than three decades with the Major League Baseball Players Association. During the last round of NHL negotiations — when a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season — the union had just seven players on the committee tasked with hammering out the agreement under former leader Bob Goodenow.
Fehr was hired in 2010 and thinks it's important to have a wider cross-section of his membership participating in the process.
"It's very important for players to be involved — it's their futures, it's their contracts — and they understand that," he said. "And so I've always operated under the general philosophy that if a player wants to come to a bargaining meeting then he should be encouraged to. It doesn't matter whether he's on the executive board, the negotiating committee or he got to the league three days ago.
"It really doesn't matter. He has a right to come, he has a right to be involved, he has a right to know what the issues are."
Fehr indicated the meetings in Chicago will feature a "very full agenda." In addition to leading players through an extensive conversation about the important issues, he intends to touch on where they've been as well.
"Obviously, what happened in the last round of negotiations is the starting point for this round of bargaining," said Fehr. "The players made what can only be characterized as enormous concessions. And so you want to make sure that the players understand what happened the last time and that they take that as the beginnings of where things go from here."
At this point, it's anyone's guess how things will go this time around — at least until Fehr and Bettman start exchanging proposals.
The atmosphere is certainly less gloomy now than in 2004, when the fundamental issue of the salary cap left the sides at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Fehr remains hopeful that a deal can be made without the acrimony that has traditionally existed between the league and union.
"I certainly hope we can take the progress that's been made and the conceited significant uptick the game is on and roll with it and keep pushing the puck forward," he said. "It's not fair of me to anticipate what they're going to do. And so we'll just wait and see."