Jim Kelley
Thursday August 28th, 2008

A tip of the proverbial hat to Colorado forward Joe Sakic, who apparently can make a reasonably-timed decision regarding whether to play another season. On Wednesday, the Avalanche announced that the team's revered captain is signing a one-year deal, reportedly for $6 million and, presumably, with a no-movement clause.

It's fair to say the soon-to-be-40 Sakic could have done better on the open market and he certainly provided Colorado with a home-team discount of sorts, but in addition to being gifted and rich, he is also smart. Sakic can have a legitimate fall-off in production and still be a loved and beloved figure in Colorado. That wouldn't be the case if he had signed with a team that was bringing him in as a savior or replacement for a departed legend.

Sakic saw that another beloved Av, Peter Forsberg, was allowed to fail when he re-signed with the Avs last February. Forsberg, like Sakic, is a Stanley Cup hero in Colorado, but Forsberg had a difficult time living up to expectations during stops in Philadelphia and Nashville once he hit the unrestricted free agent market. He still wasn't much of a contributor in Colorado after he came back last season, mostly because of his still chronic foot issues.

Still, Colorado fans were willing to overlook the present while remembering the past and Forsberg was treated as a returning hero even though he couldn't perform like one.

Surely that message wasn't lost on Sakic.

It might also be a message that resonates with Mats Sundin, who is more likely to retire than sign on for megabucks with a team that would want him to immediately contribute like the Sundin of old. It's also a harbinger for Teemu Selanne, who will likely re-sign with Anaheim, where he'll be held in the same regard as Sakic is by Avs fans.

Winning the Stanley Cup helps a lot in these kind of instances. Too bad for Sundin that Toronto was never a true contender during his 13 seasons there.

As per usual, the head of the National Hockey League Players Association will soon be making the rounds of training camps to poll the players on various issues while determining an agenda for the coming season. The task this time around falls to the union's newest leader, Paul Kelly, but in addition to the usual issues of visors pro-and-con, working conditions in various arenas, pension issues, insurance issues and the like, Kelly will be asking the question that will have all of hockey holding its collective breath:

Should the players stay or should they go?

Lost in the euphoria of ending a bitter and largely useless season-long lockout in 2005 was the fact that the players gained the contractual right to either keep the collective bargaining agreement in force through its scheduled termination date (March 2011) or opt out after the 2008-09 season.

Now, given that the agreement, including the then-dreaded salary cap, has fallen somewhere between good and great for the players, it's not likely that they'll opt out of something that will continue a seemingly unrestrained rise in pay for even the most unproven of young players. But the players do have a useful tool in their collective hands and Kelly appears determined to use it.

Kelly will take the temperature of membership and even if it is merely tepid (the likely conclusion, given that the players seem reasonably happy with their current circumstances), his job will be to explain exactly where they are, where they might expect to go, and what is in their best interest regarding seeing the six-year deal to its conclusion.

"I don't want to prejudge anything," Kelly told the Boston Globe this week. "We'll discuss it and let the facts speak for themselves."

Of course, the biggest "fact" the players have going for them is an overall payroll that is expected to top $1.22 billion for the 2008-09 season. That number has been driven by an ever-rising per-team cap (this year set at $56.7 million) that already has owners worrying and wondering exactly what kind of can they've tied their tails to and whether yet another lockout might be necessary to make it less painful.

Another lockout is something neither side says it wants, but given the comeback the NHL made in the wake of the last shutdown, it would be fair to argue that some owners would not be against shutting down again to "finally" get the CBA they claim they need. It's also fair to say that the players won't fear a game of brinksmanship, arguing that it's not their fault that the owners aren't happy with a deal they themselves structured while forcing the players out of their buildings and dictating the terms before letting them back in.

If anything is a given in the players' minds, it would be that they certainly couldn't be tagged with the "greedy" moniker that ownership hit them with during the last lockout. It's not the players' fault that the CBA isn't working the way the owners thought it would.

Both sides know that a third lockout wouldn't be a charm for the game. Both also know that fact should set the table not for a confrontation but a period of negotiation where the players and their leader have to be respected and listened to. That wasn't the case last time around, when the NHL used a sledge-hammer approach that included pounding then executive director Bob Goodenow out of office.

Kelly isn't on any owner's hit list, at least not yet, but that doesn't mean ownership doesn't have to respect his formidable reputation as a former federal prosecutor. Kelly knows how to build an iron-clad case (see his work in the players vs. former NHLPA boss Alan Eagleson showdown).

Once Kelly completes his camps tour, it will be up to the PA's executive committeeto decide whether to opt out of the current agreement or carry it through. That's one of the changes put in place after Goodenow and his disgraced successor, Ted Saskin, were replaced by a group intent on putting major decisions back in the hands of the rank and file, but be assured that Kelly will build a solid case both pro and con and that the players will make their decision based not on what he tells them to do, but on what they should do given the circumstances at hand.

Should the players decide to opt out, they would have to notify ownership by May 18, 2009. Kelly is on record as saying they would inform the league of their decision before that date, but the big unknown is what would happen should they opt to kill the deal. Theoretically, the players could play to the end of this upcoming season, but prepare to strike the playoffs (they've done that once before) or owners could opt to take the non-contract vote as a reason to start plans for another lockout, likely for the start of 2009-10.

The view from here is that the players will see the contract through to the end, but until that's a certainty, everyone on both sides will be holding their collective breath. In the meantime, an informed PA executive committee will hear from its hired leader and the vast majority of its membership. That itself is a step in a different direction for the NHLPA.

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