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NHLPA SAYS IT'S UNITED
PLAYERS CLOSE RANKS AT TORONTO MEETING

Pierre Dagenais spoke out of turn last week. The Montreal Canadiens winger revealed he wanted to play hockey so badly he would accept a salary cap.

That was before the NHL Players' Association got ahold of him.

The union held a four-hour meeting Tuesday at a Pearson International Airport hotel to share information, dispel concerns and generally bolster the membership's resolve during the lockout.

"It was awesome," said Sabres center Adam Mair, who went to the meeting with teammates Jay McKee, James Patrick and Miroslav Satan. "It was really uplifting to see how much the players care. It was like one big locker room.

"The message that kept popping up was that we have to stay supportive of the union and the executive committee we elected."

The NHLPA has shown a few cracks in its foundation lately. Players have begun making statements that oppose union positions.

Former Buffalo Sabres enforcer Rob Ray created a stir over the weekend when he proclaimed he would be a replacement player if the NHL went in that direction.

Dagenais, Ottawa Senators defenseman Brian Pothier, Calgary Flames defenseman Mike Commodore and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Nolan Baumgartner all have said they would accept a salary cap, an idea the union finds repellent.

Dagenais, who had never attended an NHLPA meeting before, emerged from Tuesday's forum a changed man. He backed off his previous comments, but declined to answer whether he remained in favor of a salary cap.

"I said what I said last week, but it was nice to come here and learn a lot about the issues," Dagenais said. "Now I know that the union is not trying to negotiate a deal for the high-end guys, but they are doing it for everyone."

All of the union dissenters have been fringe players, and aside from Ray they are young with few games of NHL experience. Patrick also pointed out the naysayers have all been Canadians playing on Canadian teams, and that reporters north of the border "try to tweak these guys to get a differing response."

At his afternoon news conference, NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow was most passionate when explaining the union's no-cap stance is designed to protect recyclable role players such as Dagenais more than the superstars.

"There have been a lot of suggestions by the media -- erroneous I must say -- that the (NHLPA) only cares about the top guys," Goodenow said. "That is so far off the mark it's ridiculous.

"In any system, the top players always do very, very well. This association over the last 14 years has been very, very focused on the rank and file, the third-line and fourth-line guys. That's been evidenced by our median salary, which has remained strong.

"The great majority of our membership really understands how caps work, and the victims in those cap systems are those . . . third- and fourth-line players who get churned and squeezed out."

Each player representative was allowed to invite two or three teammates to attend Tuesday's meeting. A total of 74 players showed up.

"With some of the sentiment coming in," Patrick said, "it was a really good learning experience for guys who could air their concerns and then hear the older players' or the executive committee's take on things. It was a good chance to get a lot of questions answered. The timing of it was very good."

Added McKee: "Everyone is on the same page. There was a lot of talk going into the meeting about the handful of guys who spoke out against the union stance, but it was apparent those guys were the least informed."

Many of the players have been frustrated over the lack of negotiations since Sept. 9.

Neither side is willing to approach the other because of their bipolar salary-cap stances. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman isn't willing to compromise on the issue, and therefore Goodenow says there's no point in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

"We're willing to wait as long as it takes for them to get off their cap system," said Colorado Avalanche center Vincent Damphousse, a member of the executive committee.

"I think there's a lot of great owners out there, but there's a madman leading them down the wrong path," Philadelphia Flyers goalie Robert Esche said of Bettman.

Canucks center Trevor Linden, president of the executive committee, said the union in the next few weeks will be dipping into a fund to disburse money to players in need. Players have missed two of their 12 scheduled paychecks thus far.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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