CHICAGO - Let the games begin.
The NHL and NHL Players' Association are scheduled to kick off formal talks on a new collective bargaining agreement in New York on Friday, according to multiple sources.
Anxious fans have been waiting months for the two sides to open negotiations on a deal that is set to expire Sept. 15. Despite the fact a season was lost the last time they went to the bargaining table, there has been a slight hint of optimism in the air at the NHLPA's executive board meetings this week.
"We have a few months ahead here to reach a deal and that's our goal," New York Islanders star John Tavares said Tuesday.
In all, the union has gathered 53 players together for three days of comprehensive meetings before talks open. They were split into three breakout groups on Tuesday afternoon and combed over a number of topics expected to be raised during CBA discussions—everything from desired changes to the current financial system to player safety and on-ice issues.
More than half of the players who travelled to Chicago lived through the 2004-05 lockout and they've gone out of their way to talk about the experience with younger union members.
"You know what, they did what they felt was right," said Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider, who was in college at the time. "They didn't feel they had a deal that was fair to them and they made the ultimate sacrifice.
"I think we're in a better place now from a players' standpoint than we would have been than if they had caved and accepted the deal presented and tried to play the rest of that year."
There is hope that the past won't have to be repeated to get something done this time.
Under the current CBA, the NHL has seen its revenues grow from US$2.1 billion annually to roughly $3.3 billion. And there's very little to suggest that the trend won't continue.
"The league's doing really well," said St. Louis Blues forward David Backes. "There's been increased revenues—record revenues—every year. It's on a track that seems like almost exponential growth, to halt that would be a shame on both sides.
"We're looking for something that's fair, we're not looking to clean house."
At this point, it's still a little unclear exactly where the major battle lines will be drawn. The NHL is expected to try and lower the players' take of overall league revenue from its current position of 57 per cent while the union will attempt to redesign the revenue-sharing system so that the wealthy teams are required to do a better job of supporting those that are struggling.
Undoubtedly, a number of other significant issues will also arise.
The sides appear to be entering talks with the hope of keeping them as quiet as possible. In fact, neither would even confirm Tuesday that they're set to finally sit down together—even with the scheduled session just days away.
The NHLPA is expected to unveil a negotiating team of more than 30 players when the executive board meetings wrap up Wednesday. Having a group that large at the table is one of many changes Donald Fehr has made since taking over the union in December 2010.
His presence and approach has been a breath of fresh air for long-time members.
"It's like we've been taught again what the definition of collective bargaining is and why there are unions and why people collectively bargain," said Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Steve Montador. "It's been a great reset."
A number of young players are taking an interest in the process. Not only is the 21-year-old Tavares a budding star in the league, but he's also the Islanders' union representative and the youngest player to show up in Chicago this week.
Veteran teammates Doug Weight, Marty Reasoner and Rick DiPietro have preached to him about the importance of getting involved during his three years in the NHL. He's trying to stay positive as the union gets set to embark on another round of negotiations.
"You never ever want to miss a day, let alone miss a whole season," said Tavares. "It's something that would be really hard to even think about."
For those who've already dealt with it once, it's not something that can be easily forgotten. The wounds are still a little fresh for some players even though seven years have passed since the lockout.
"Looking back on it, we made a lot of huge concessions—losing a season not to mention (the deal itself)," said veteran Blackhawks forward Jamal Mayers. "The fact is the league's seen seven years of revenue growth. At the end of the day, we're going to have to come to an agreement."