NHLPA to vote Thursday on reopening CBA
Union also exploring potential rule changes, ways to protect players
Should National Hockey League fans be concerned about a potential work stoppage, four years after a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season?
An answer could be provided following a scheduled Thursday evening conference call between members of the NHL Players' Association executive board and executive director Paul Kelly.
On Thursday's call, the results of an NHLPA survey of its 720-player membership will be shared and the 30-member board — one player representative from each team — will vote on whether to reopen the collective bargaining agreement.
The union can terminate the agreement in May and also has the option of extending the deal a year through the 2011-2012 season, Kelly said last spring.
If the news is good, meaning no reopening of the CBA and no potential lockout or strike, Kelly hinted to Ron MacLean of Hockey Night in Canada that an announcement could be made Friday.
The chances appear good for that to happen, given that the current CBA has worked out well for the players. The average player salary and median salaries are higher than they were during the 2003-04 campaign.
Also, there has been a significant rise in the league salary cap, from $39.5 million US following the lockout to $50.3 million this season.
When asked by MacLean if the NHLPA was prepared for another work stoppage, Kelly said it was.
But, he suggested during an interview on Saturday's HNIC pre-game show that "even if we weren't able to reach an agreement within a span of six of eight months, we could continue to play under the terms of this CBA, even though we will have terminated it. [But] we would be at greater risk, at that point, of a lockout or strike."
NHLers favour Olympic tourney
Kelly also touched on the NHL's participation in the Olympic tournament beyond the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the union's stance on potential rule changes on fighting, helmet use and hits to the head.
He said players strongly favour continued Olympic play beyond 2010, a feeling that likely will draw the ire of the NHL and team owners, who reportedly don't fancy the idea of interrupting the regular season for the Olympics.
"They [the players] think it is the best way to expose our game to a worldwide audience," Kelly told MacLean. "We have 30 per cent of our members that are from Europe and Russia and they feel very strongly about the opportunity to represent their country."
The NHL's competition committee — made up of NHL players, general managers and team executives — talked extensively by phone this week about possible rule changes, including fighting.
MacLean said there have been calls of late for automatic game ejections and suspensions for second and third offences as it relates to fighting in the NHL.
The outcry stems from the recent death of senior hockey league player Don Sanderson of Port Perry, Ont. The Whitby Dunlops defenceman fell into a coma after a fight with Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast on Dec. 12.
Both players fell to the ice but Sanderson, who had lost his helmet in the tussle, hit the ice with the back of his head.
"Anybody who plays this game is part of our family of players," Kelly said, "so our sympathies go out to the Sanderson family … It would be a mistake for us to take one very unfortunate, tragic incident and try to engage in wholesale rules changes.
"But we do have the responsibility to look at the safety aspects. We're not proposing to take the physicality of the fighting out of our game, but it is something we'll study closely in the coming months."
Junior league tightens helmet rules
Kelly said he will also keep a close eye on the junior Ontario Hockey League, which earlier this week announced a new rule to address the issue of players losing their helmets during fights.
"If a player should remove his helmet or undo his chinstrap prior to or during an altercation, such player shall receive a game misconduct in addition to any other penalties assessed and an automatic one-game suspension," the new rule states.
If a player removes his helmet and an opposing player doesn't, the penalty for the first player is two games.
If the player's helmet becomes accidentally dislodged during a fight, the new rule requires linesmen to intervene immediately.
"I'm not so sure that it does make sense at the NHL level," said Kelly. "This is a physical game that's being played by grown men. They understand the risks, they assume the risks. I don't think anybody at this point is ready to say, 'Let's wipe out all fighting.'"
Kelly said he, along with NHLPA director of player affairs Glenn Healy, will make a presentation at the general managers' meetings in Naples, Fla., in March to see if any of the players' concerns on various issues have any traction.
A top priority of the players, according to Kelly, is hits to the head and hits from behind.
There is a sense of frustration among the players that clean hits on the ice are resulting in retribution and retaliation from teammates of those who have been struck.
"Players felt strongly that there should be some change to the rule to better protect the players from head shots," Kelly said in reference to the NHLPA survey. "We are looking at possibly some type of rules adjustment that might parallel the hits-from-behind rule.
"If you have a particularly vulnerable player and the attacking player intentionally or recklessly targets the head of that player and makes contact with a hand, arm, elbow or shoulder, that would be a penalty."
In other news, Kelly confirmed an ESPN.com report that the NHL will continue to send teams to Europe to kick off its regular season, and the world's best players will meet in the 2011 World Cup of Hockey.