CHICAGO - Poised and confident. Calm and ready.
There wasn't the slightest hint of tension in the air as the NHL Players' Association wrapped up executive board meetings Wednesday and shifted its attention to the imminent negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement.
"We're ready," said Don Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director. "The players are ready, I'm sure the owners are ready. It's time to start."
The first formal session will be held Friday in New York. The sides also have plans to meet again late next week and are expected to continue holding regular sessions until a new deal can be hammered out.
On Wednesday, Fehr unveiled a 31-player negotiating committee that includes a true cross-section of the union's membership: recognizable faces in Henrik Zetterberg, Shea Weber and Shane Doan; journeymen in Dominic Moore, Alex Auld and Craig Adams; and even John Tavares, who is only 21 years old and just completed his entry-level contract.
He came away from three days of meetings feeling "excited" about where the union stands.
"Don's done a great job of relating to guys like me and helping us understand it and be a part of it," said Tavares. "I'm just trying represent the young guys as much as I can and give them some guidance and some info."
Fehr wouldn't offer any predictions on how things might unfold at the bargaining table. He believes the first order of business will be coming to a common understanding of where the industry stands right now—with Fehr noting more than once that commissioner Gary Bettman proudly announced record annual revenues of US$3.3 billion during the Stanley Cup.
And even though there is a long history of animosity between the NHL and its players' union, Fehr doesn't expect much distrust to hang over the proceedings.
"Gary's a pro, I'm a pro—we've been doing this a long time," he said.
Fewer than 10 players are expected to attend Friday's bargaining session, but that number will grow as the process goes along. There are 24 more players directly involved in negotiations than in 2004 and Fehr is encouraging his entire membership to get engaged in the process.
"As far as I'm concerned, any player that wants to come to meetings, all he has to do is show up," said Fehr. "And if he needs an airline ticket and a hotel room, the union will pay for it. It's their futures, they need to take responsibility for it and I'm absolutely persuaded that they are ready, willing and able to do that."
It's hard to believe this is the same union that was left reeling after it watched the entire 2004-05 season wiped out by a lockout and accepted a salary cap and 24 per cent rollback of salaries as part of the CBA that ended it.
Fehr has blown through like a breath of fresh air since being hired to lead the NHLPA in December 2010. He's spent much of the last two years traversing the continent in an effort to meet as many players as possible and get a handle on the issues that are most important to them.
That preparation is now paying dividends.
"Guys are united, we're all in this together," said Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Steckel, another member of the negotiating committee. "I think the education to everybody across the association has been better than it has in the past. It allows players to be a little smarter. We're very encouraged.
"I think the one thing we can agree on is we want to have a fair agreement and get it done as painless as possible."
The current deal expires Sept. 15, although Fehr has been quick to note that it won't necessarily be a firm deadline. Theoretically, the league and its players could continue negotiating while going ahead with the season—something Fehr had happen on occasion when he worked for the baseball union.
At this point, it's unclear how bloody the negotiations will end up being.
Bettman has remained notably silent when asked about what issues the owners would like to see addressed in a new deal. The percentage of revenue paid to players and an enhanced system of sharing profits among teams are sure to be discussed. The fight could escalate in a hurry if the NHL were to propose the end of guaranteed contracts.
No matter what ends up happening, the players maintain they're ready for the months ahead—months Doan noted could be "tough." Most of the 56 union members who attended the NHLPA meetings in Chicago stood together on a podium behind Fehr as he wrapped the event up with a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
"I think it's just a show of solidarity," said Doan. "I don't think anybody is looking to make anything more difficult than it has to be, but at the same time you want to make sure that everybody knows that we're together as a group. We're comfortable as a group with the leadership of Don and everyone he's kind of brought in.
"We're behind him 100 per cent."