The National Hockey League Players' Association plans to file an application with the Quebec Labour Board this week, in the hopes of preventing NHL owners from locking out players on the Montreal Canadiens.
If successful, the appeal would mean Canadiens' players would theoretically be allowed to practice as usual and then draw their NHL salaries once the regular season gets under way on Oct. 11, even if the rest of the league is shut down by lockout, which could be imposed as early as this Saturday.
According to Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges, the NHLPA believes it is unlawful for players on his team to be locked out in Quebec because the NHLPA isn't recognized as a certified union by the Quebec Labour Board.
Gorges was less certain about a challenge in Alberta, where a scheduled hearing Tuesday morning before the Alberta Labour Relations Board to discuss how the lockout would affect members of the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames was cancelled. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was reportedly en route to Edmonton for the hearing, but turned back.
Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Gorges suggested the NHLPA's overall strategy was to put "pressure on the owners" and repeated numerous times what is becoming the NHLPA mantra in these negotiations – that the players are prepared to keep playing under the old collective agreement, as negotiations continue.
The league has rejected the NHLPA offer out of hand, on the grounds that no meaningful give-and-take can take place in talks if the league continues to operate.
And the owners want significant clawbacks in a new agreement that would include a reduction in the players' share of the overall NHL pie. Currently, NHL players receive 57 per cent of gross revenues. The latest NHL offer would reduce the percentage to 46.
"We're here, we're willing to negotiate," said Mathieu Darche, who also spoke on the conference call. "They're the ones that brought up the lockout. They're the ones threatening to lock us out. You see today, we're in New York, we're ready to talk, but they're not in New York. We're doing our part in what we have to do to negotiate. Unfortunately, that's why we're doing this thing [with the labour boards]. Because we have to take all possible avenues in case they lock us out."
Darche, a McGill business school grad and former Habs player, also indicated that the players are acutely sensitive to the ripple effects a lockout could have – a position that will doubtless endear him to fans.
"It's not good for negotiations, it's not good for hockey, we know the impact this can have in Canada. If by doing this we can avoid a lockout, all the better. In Montreal we know how much [hockey] generates for employees inside the buildings and businesses around the arena," he said.
Should the NHLPA appeal succeed, the Canadiens' players would draw their salaries, even if their confrères elsewhere were locked out. However, Gorges indicated that getting paid was not the primary motivation behind the appeals. Instead, he suggested if players on the Canadiens, Oilers and Flames could gain a competitive edge on the rest of the league by practising, owners on the other 27 teams might insist their players get a chance to do the same, theoretically weakening resolve on the ownership side.
It's a theory, anyway.
"Just talking with the guys in Montreal, the coaching staff anyways, they're just as excited as players are to get started," Gorges said. "We want to get out there practising. We want to get out there playing, especially here in Montreal. We've had a lot of changes. We want to get out there and get familiar with everyone – familiar with the coaches and the coaches with the players. So I think they'll be on board with pushing it through."
When pressed, Gorges was quick to add that he hadn't spoken to any of the new coaches in Montreal about actually going on the ice with the players, if the NHLPA appeal succeeds.
With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal