CFL training camps opened Sunday amid the uncertainty of a potential players' strike.
Veterans reported for the start of two-a-day workouts three days after negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement broke down for the second time in as many weeks. The old deal expired at midnight ET on Thursday, the two sides haven't met since and have no new talks scheduled.
The CFL Players' Association has mailed strike ballots to its members but Alberta labour laws could push the start of a strike into next week. For defensive back Eric Fraser, a union rep for the expansion Ottawa Redblacks, that's a good thing.
"That's a lot of time for the (CFLPA) executive and CFL to sit back down and hammer something out," he said. "I don't think we're too far away right now, but tough decisions are going to have to be made on our end and their end and hopefully we can nail something out and everyone leaves the negotiating table a little upset because they think they gave up a little too much."
There has been one strike since the formation of the CFLPA in 1965. That was in '74 when a new agreement was reached during training camp without the loss of regular-season games.
The 2014 regular season is scheduled to kick off June 26. Despite the huge cloud hanging over the league, Fraser is confident a deal will be reached.
"I have 100 per cent confidence there would be no lockout or strike like (2012 in the NHL) in the CFL," he said. "You just can't do it.
"A good deal is going to get done here and I think that's positive."
The CFL and players met for 17 hours over two days last week but money remains a major stumbling block after the league signed a five-year TV deal with TSN said to be worth a whopping $42 million annually this off-season. That deal alone would reportedly net teams an extra $2.7 million in 2014.
The CFLPA is looking for the salary cap — which was $4.4 million last year — to increase to $5.8 million, with a $4.8 million minimum. The league has countered with a $5-million cap offer and boosting the average stipend to $96,000 from $92,917.
The players have amended their revenue-sharing stance. Instead of requesting specific percentages on gate, television and sponsorship revenues, the CFLPA proposed a fixed cap for at least two years. After the second if league revenues increased by more than $12 million — excluding the Grey Cup — the two sides would renegotiate the cap or the CBA would be terminated at season’s end.
The league would renegotiate the cap if revenues increased by $27 million or more in the third year. Cohon, who called the CFL's proposal last week it's last and best, has repeatedly stated owners won't agree to any revenue-sharing offer because league revenues and profits aren't enough for the model to work effectively.
And that bothers veteran kicker Paul McCallum, the B.C. Lions player rep.
"I don't know which way is up when (Cohon) talks sometimes," McCallum said. "All I know is the finances are what they are — they're black and white.
"As players we just need to be treated fairly, and that's all we're asking for. We're not millionaires here."
For decades the CFL suffered financially, something the 44-year-old McCallum knows firsthand. But the veteran kicker feels the CFL is banking on the union cracking this time around.
"To be quite honest, over my career we've sort of bent and bent and bent so I guess they think why would we not bend now," he said. "They're in for a rude awakening this time.
"Enough is enough."
Argos centre Jeff Keeping, also a member of the CFLPA executive, is glad to be playing football again but would readily replace his uniform with a suit for the resumption of contract talks.
"The players are unwavering . . . we hope to get back to the negotiating table," he said. "Until then we're here to play football."
Veteran Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris is undeterred about the league's labour strife but said it's time the two sides resume talking.
"The people that are in place saying all this stuff in the media, they need to quit all that crap and get to work and do what they're paid to do and that's to make decisions and get this thing rectified so we can get back out here and do our jobs," he said. "For me that's the bottom line, as a senior member of the CFL, I'm telling you guys 'Let's get this thing done,' so we can get out here on the field and do our jobs because we're looking forward to an amazing time here in Ottawa and we don't want nobody to spoil this party that we have planned."
Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich has contingency plans for a work stoppage but says right now it's business as usual.
"Any practices we can get is great for the coaches, great for the players," he said. "It just makes the practices we get in even more important that we take advantage to all the minutes and reps we get."
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and B.C. running back Andrew Harris are both pretty much taking the same approach.
"It's not in my mind, it's not in my control," Levi Mitchell said. "No matter what, whatever happens, the day you come back, if it does happen, you've got to be ready to play that day. We're going to come out here and compete and get better every single day and practise like nothing's going on."
Added Harris: "We're here to work. we're here to get better. You've just got to prepare as if everything's going great and we're going to be playing."
— With files from Lisa Wallace in Ottawa, Donna Spencer in Calgary and Joshua Clipperton in Kamloops, B.C.