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NHLPA boss Fehr sticking to positive script

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is surrounded by players as he speaks to reporters at the...

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is surrounded by players as he speaks to reporters at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto on Friday. (Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

DAVE HILSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:56 PM ET

NHLPA boss Donald Fehr was trying to do his best impression of that old Johnny Mercer song Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive -- and eliminating the negative on Friday afternoon at the Ritz-Carlton.

But with the clock ticking away on labour negotiations, you don't have to be a detective to figure out that Fehr believes a lockout is on its way.

"I'm going to be optimistic until it's impossible to be optimistic — and we're not there yet," Fehr told a group of reporters gathered at the swanky Toronto hotel.

Fehr was at the Ritz to meet with a group of about 30 players, including Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, to update them on the status of negotiations and get their input, this after two days of meetings with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in which very little was accomplished — and Bettman told reporters afterwards that the two sides remain "far apart."

While Fehr remains upbeat about the course the negotiations have taken, he made it clear that if there's no NHL hockey this fall, it will be the fault of the owners.

"A lockout is not a choice that is imposed by law, it's a choice you make voluntarily. So if there's a lockout on September 15 or on some other date, it will be because the owners have decided that's what they want to do -- and that's a decision they'll have to make. We hope they treat a lockout as a last resort, the same way we treat a strike as a last resort.

"Time will tell whether they do, but the history in the (salary) cap sports is they don't do that. The history in the cap sports is that they treat a shutdown as a negotiating tactic."

The current CBA expires Sept. 15 and it's looking more and more like the owners are ready to close the doors on the league.

"I'm out of the prediction business, I've been out of the prediction business for a very long time," Fehr said regarding how he thinks talks with the owners, scheduled to resume on Tuesday in New York, will go. "All I can tell you is from our standpoint, you get up every day and think about where you are. You try to analyze and re-analyze, you talk to your constituents if there's a new or different approach or a new or different argument you can make to the other side "¦ You go back to the bargaining table and you continue the discussions until you find a way to make an agreement.

"And if that's Tuesday or a week from Tuesday, whenever it is, the process will take as long as it takes. The optimum is, of course, to get a deal done before this one expires."

At the heart of the matter is, of course, money.

The players have agreed to reduce their 57% of revenue to closer to the 50% range that was accepted by the other three major sports -- but the owners want that number closer to 43%. It's a widely held belief, and one that Fehr seems to share, that the owners will lock out the players as a negotiating tactic if their demands are not met.

"If the object is to reach a solution before you have an interruption in the normal course of the season, then you have to wonder why you are shutting things down at that point, unless your purpose is, you think you can get leverage," Fehr said. "The problem with this industry is that history suggests that doesn't work given what happened last time."

The problem for the players is they will be losing a considerable amount of money if there is a prolonged lockout, while some owners, the owners of franchises that lose money, will actually be ahead of the game.

But Fehr denied the players are scared of a work stoppage.

"The players are not afraid of a lockout. You would have to have had your head in the sand not to remember what happened seven years ago (the previous full-season NHL lockout) and not understand what happened in football and basketball. Everybody understands what can happen but the owners have to make their own judgements about that. But, you know, we do have fans that we ought to be taking into consideration."

When asked if he was worried fans would not come back to the game if there is a prolonged lockout, Fehr said: "I'm still hopeful that we're going to find a way not to (have a lockout). That's not a question I ever hope we have to have answered."

PHANEUF IS PREPARING TO PLAY

Though it's looking likely that an NHL lockout is going to happen, Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said it's business as usual as far as player preparation is concerned.

"Right now, it's status quo. We're training to start on September 23 or 24, whenever training camp opens, and you prepare as if you are getting ready for a season — and that's what we're working towards is wanting to play," Phaneuf said at the Ritz-Carlton on Friday afternoon.

Phaneuf was among a group of about 30 players who met with NHLPA boss Donald Fehr at the Toronto hotel to get updated on the current labour negotiations and give their input.

"As players, we want to play. We want a fair deal and we want to play under a fair deal, and right now we're working toward that with ownership. The last couple of days here of meetings have been nothing but positive," Phaneuf said.


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