If National Hockey League players like to chirp at each other during the heat of the game, just wait until they are let loose today in an airport hotel boardroom with their union executive.
The NHL Players' Association's resolve in this six-week lockout has been tested several times the past week.
Elements in the 700-strong union, mostly those at the low end of the pay scale, have been complaining about the lack of negotiations, the number of NHLers taking jobs in Europe and -- horror of horrors -- warming to the notion of the owners' salary cap if it means saving the 2004-05 season.
More than 70 player reps as well as rank and file from this area are expected for the update from NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, senior adviser Ted Saskin, president Trevor Linden and his vice-presidents.
Maple Leafs player rep Bryan McCabe and several Toronto skaters are expected at the question-and-answer session.
The get-together was scheduled weeks ago, but recent comments from Mike Ribeiro, Mike Commodore, Pierre Dagenais, Brian Pothier and Rob Ray have given the meeting added urgency.
Many of the reps have been peppered with questions from teammates antsy at another missed paycheque yesterday and the reality of a lost season and public indifference setting in.
The stage belonged to Ray on the weekend, after the Ottawa Senators tough guy told Sun Media he was frustrated by the lack of talks, would cross the line if replacement players were brought in next season and that about 10 current NHLers would go with him.
That brought a rebuke from Ray's former Buffalo Sabres teammate Mike Peca of the New York Islanders, who will be here today.
"It was disappointing to hear his comments," Peca told the Buffalo News. "If he wants to play, that's his right, but I'd just like to see guys call Bob Goodenow or their reps and voice their opinions that way.
"I don't remember seeing any of the guys who have been speaking out at any NHLPA meetings over the years. Voice your opinion to the membership instead of trying to create a ripple effect through the media."
In a column for Sun Media last week, goaltender Corey Hirsch complained about the locked-out NHLers who've gone to Europe, calling them "scabs" for upsetting the job market there.
Hirsch, who lost his place on a Swiss team to Martin Gerber of the Carolina Hurricanes, told a Vancouver radio station yesterday that rich players probably will make their lost salary back in investments while those who need the work are squeezed out.
He also backed the idea of replacement players.
Some of these open wounds should be healed today, given the pep-rally effect these meetings had in the 1994-95 lockout.
"I think it's great timing, a great chance for everyone to get together and confirm that we are on the same page," Columbus Blue Jackets player rep Todd Marchant told the Canadian Press.
"I believe that we are."
Saskin has said that no new proposal will come out of today's meeting, which is set to last from 8 a.m. until mid-afternoon.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is probably loving every minute of this, but diplomatically told TSN last night that such cracks "are part of a process" and that no one could expect 700 players to be 100% happy about its position.
But he fired another warning shot at Goodenow.
"This is a union that likes to bargain through confrontation ... a union that is deadline hunting," he said. "But the season is likely to slip away. We couldn't cave into them if we wanted to. We have to have a new deal."
Player agents, who are also influential in the bargaining process, will get their say in Chicago on Nov. 17.
A large group is expected, including the likes of Don Baizley, Don Meehan, J.P. Barry, Pat Brisson, Pat Morris and Rick Curran.
STAMPING OUT FIRES
The issues that will be brought up at today's NHLPA meetings in Toronto:
- After the executive made rejection of a salary cap the basic tenet of its bargaining stance, some players have said they'll accept one if it means saving the season.
- The rich and famous are jetting off to play in Europe, leaving less skilled NHLers behind and ticking off North Americans who've lost their overseas gig.
- The earliest the league could bring in replacement players is next September, but some on the low end of the wage scale say they will cross the line if it comes to that.
SILENCE NOT GOLDEN
- Union boss Bob Goodenow has not spoken to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman since Sept. 9. Some players want Goodenow to take the initiative.
BILLS, BILLS, BILLS
- With a third missed paycheque yesterday, the players, particularly those with wives and children, will want an update on the players' lockout war chest.