***I sat down with Penguins player rep Max Talbot following Tuesday’s practice, to talk about the presence of Don Fehr as the likely new leader of the NHLPA, hockey getting back on ESPN and the struggles of quality NHL players finding work.***

Talbot on Don Fehr, New TV Contract

Presumptive NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr began the process a month ago of meeting with players from all 30 NHL teams. It’s a 30 team – 45 day tour for Fehr, who the players believe gives them a prominent leader moving forward as the current collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2012.
Fehr met with all Penguins players in St. Louis on Friday, October 22 in what was regarded as a very productive meeting with the team.
According to Penguins player rep Max Talbot, Fehr message is “unity”.
” He {Don Fehr} obviously wants to bring some unity, Talbot told Inside Pittsburgh Sports. “He’s an experienced guy. He went through a lot with baseball and he wants to help us. New bargaining agreement is coming in two years and I think he really wants us to get ready for that.”
After years of dysfunction, the players believe they now have a strong leader behind them who will go toe-to-toe with the league and is going to push for the players best interests.
The growing issues for the players include the current “hard cap” system that in reality will be difficult for the players to get their way and make major changes too, as the owners are unified that a soft cap system (NBA) or luxury cap system (MLB) won’t even be a consideration.
In the meantime, a short-term issue at the top of the players wishlist is finding the “Right TV Deal”. TV contracts with NBC and Versus expire after this season.
Several agents around the league tell me a top priority for the players is getting the game back on ESPN. It could become a reality for the 2011-2012 season.
Talbot hinted at ESPN being the right direction for the league, but said it’s all about finding the right deal for money and exposure purposes.
“It’s (Finding The Right TV Contract} important for the league, ” Talbot said. “It’s important for the growth of the game, you know, it’s not only for the players but I’m sure the league wants to have the right deal. Whether it’s money or exposure, we just want the right deal in place, ” Talbot said.
“If it has to be ESPN…. it might be ESPN but if it’s…..

Versus and Versus has the right deal for us when it comes to exposure, money and all that stuff, then Versus will be it, ” Talbot said.
League officials have reached out to ESPN in recent months about a possible return and ESPN is interested in getting the NHL back.
However, it is still not a slam dunk that a deal between the two sides will be able to get worked out. One league official called the talks “exploratory” for now.
ESPN is only interested in coming on board again if they get the contractual status to carry the Stanley Cup Finals and have no interest in sharing the Finals with NBC or Versus.
The league though wants to have all three stations in the mix and wants to develop an NBA tv contract type of model with Versus being the “TNT” of hockey.
This season NBC will televise the Winter Classic, nine additional regular-season games, some weekend playoff matchups and up to five games of the Stanley Cup finals this season. Versus is scheduled to air 79 regular-season games and the remainder of the playoffs.
The ratings for Versus are up by almost 30% this year and the Flyers-Penguins opener was the most-watched NHL regular-season telecast on cable since 2004.
The key will be throwing a bone to each side.
NBC wants to keep the Winter Classic game which ESPN I’m told doesn’t have much interest in at all due to Bowl season.
Versus could stay in the same role, carrying several games throughout the year, All-Star games, playoff games, one of the Conference Finals series but the issue is going to be the Stanley Cup Finals.
That’s what ESPN seeks but NBC, Versus don’t want to lose the finals.
The league feels even if ESPN comes back on board, they still need Versus as ESPN’s coverage of hockey won’t be prominent at certain stages of the season.
The exposure though on ESPN will be much more significant when it comes to viewing audience and an promotional aspect.
Versus is available in just 65 percent of American homes with televisions. ESPN is available in 86 percent of homes.
Last season the league finished with its best television rating for a game in 36 years.

Talbot on the Salary Cap

Another topic I touched based with Talbot was quality NHL players struggling to find work due to the current hard cap system.
“That’s the reality of the salary cap, ” Talbot said. “If you have a cap, you have to respect it and GM has to respect it. Something that’s been an issue for the last couple years.”