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What appears at first to be a relatively simple decision could have a big impact on the future of the troubled NHL Players' Association when it meets in Chicago Monday.

Watching over the proceedings, as he has since joining the union as an unpaid adviser in November, will be Donald Fehr, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, a man believed by those involved to be the right leader to rebuild the NHLPA.

If he wants the job.

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One of the key issues facing the players in attendance Monday will be a vote on whether to approve the annual 5-per-cent growth factor in the NHL's salary cap.

A year ago, the vote was close, but players pushed the cap "inflator" through for the third consecutive year. After a season of players making 18-per-cent escrow payments, however, many believe this particular decision could be the most contentious one yet.

While a majority of the player reps and agents contacted declined to comment, some said they believe another display of infighting over the vote could be a sign to Fehr that leading the union isn't in his best interests.

"He's either going to take the position that he's going to evaluate what the players decide and that will affect in turn his decision, or he will urge the players to take the [cap]escalator, extend the [collective agreement] and then if they don't go along with that vote, he knows where he stands and he'll check out," said one agent who asked to remain unidentified.

"Don's a pretty sharp guy. It could only be one of those two things. … If the answer is no, in either case, I think it sends a signal to him."

At the heart of the debate over whether to raise the cap is the issue of escrow, the single most unpopular element of the NHL's collective agreement for most players.

Due to the fact league revenues have not risen as quickly as the 5-per-cent growth factor and players receive a set percentage (roughly 57 per cent) of those revenues, the amount coming off their paycheques in escrow has at times been as high as 22.5 per cent in the last two seasons.

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Some of that money is usually returned to players at the end of the year after revenues have been calculated, but this season the NHL will keep approximately 11 per cent of players' salaries, almost $175-million (U.S.).

If players vote Monday for a cap increase of approximately $2-million, to $58.8-million, many teams will spend to that new limit and the league as a whole will likely again outspend revenues. If the growth factor is voted down, however, the cap will fall for the first time - likely to around $56.4-million.

Should that happen, several teams will be in even greater salary-cap difficulty, less will be spent overall and, to the delight of players, escrow will be lower.

It's a system that pits players who are free agents and want more money, against those with long-term deals affected by escrow.

Finding a middle ground is likely to be difficult, although most agents contacted this week advocated for the cap going up.

"They have to think about what's best for everyone, not just themselves," said J.P. Barry, a high-profile agent with Creative Artists Agency.

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"I feel the [cap]inflator is necessary at this stage given precedent, given we have used it now in every season since 2006. We have contract cycles every year where 25 to 35 per cent of players [become free agents]… and every one of them has benefited somewhat by the fact the inflator was in place. To turn around now and take it away for me would be inherently unfair."

Agent Jay Grossman, whose clients include some of the top free agents this summer (Ilya Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov), added that he sees this vote as "a watershed moment" for the union.

Like Barry, he feels players should vote to increase the cap.

Finding that consensus among the players, however, is more difficult due to the fact the NHLPA has lacked a leader since former executive director Paul Kelly was fired last August.

Fehr, who was at the league office in Toronto Friday to listen in on the competition committee meeting, has been assisting a group of five players in the search for the union's next executive director, a curious arrangement given the role is one many are hoping Fehr himself agrees to take on.

How far that search has progressed, however, remains a mystery given the group has made an effort to keep its dealings quiet.

"I will not say anything regarding the ED search," said Detroit Red Wings defenceman Brian Rafalski, a member of the search committee. "It's an internal matter and will be handled as such."

It's believed a decision will be made on the new director at another union meeting in July, none too soon given the current collective agreement will expire in 2011 or 2012. (That date is yet another decision that may be made Monday.)

Many watching the situation unfold said this week there's only one candidate they're hoping for, and it's the man who led baseball through its own ugly labour wars the past 26 years.

Whether he will take the job, however, no one seems to know.

"He's the players' only hope," one agent said. "What else do they have to turn to? Who else do they have to turn to?"

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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