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Last Word: Beware of CBA role reversal

NHL owners have never been shy to shut down the league to get what they wanted. But this time around, labor peace depends on how much the players push back.

In the past, the All-Star Game prior to the date when the NHL or the NHL Players’ Association could trigger the end of the CBA was the perfect time for either side to stake its turf and start dropping well-placed and thinly veiled hints about its bargaining position. And in due time, those tiny crumbs become hills upon which you’re willing to die.

But not this time. At the all-star festivities this season, what was until then a whisper became a roar – that maybe, just maybe, the two sides could strike a new deal that would not result in a labor disruption for the first time in more than three decades.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared the league is “not looking for a fight,” while NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider said the tension from past negotiations has been notably absent in the exploratory talks the two sides have had so far, compared to 2012: “There were walls built up when you walked into that room for the first meeting. That’s not there right now, and I think it’s only a good thing.”

Now, some perspective. Getting off to a start like this is nothing but positive. But to be walking lockstep on cancelling the 2020 World Cup and agreeing on puck- and player-tracking technology are far cries from addressing escrow payments or agreeing on whether to participate in the Olympics. The rubber will truly hit the road when those uncomfortable conversations begin.

And there is something that is completely different about the dynamic this time around. In previous negotiations, it was always the players who have wanted things to stay status quo, while the owners have demanded changes to the system, changes they needed so badly they felt they had to shut the league down three times to get them. The players have been beaten up and had their lunch money stolen in successive CBAs, and now they’re the ones who are going to want to level the playing field.

Depending upon the mood of the players, that might also make a labor disruption less likely. It’s easier for an owner who’s losing $20 million a year to shut the game down. It’s far less for a player who has a finite amount of time to accrue his lifetime earnings, more so when the league is being populated more and more by wildly talented teenagers who are forcing veterans out and pushing down a career life expectancy.

So it will very much be up to the players this time. That means the league will not opt to reopen the CBA when it has its chance beginning Sept. 1, and the players almost certainly will when their opportunity arises Sept. 15. It’s very important to note that last time around, the league managed to get the players’ share of revenues down from 57 percent to 50. In return, the players managed to avoid having five-year contract limits and they received a defined pension plan, but it was truly a case where they were limiting their potential losses.

That revenue share makes the owners hundreds of millions of dollars per year. And that, not the rise in revenues themselves, has been what has driven franchise values up and allows the NHL to demand a $650-million expansion fee, an amount they do not share with the players. Of course, rising revenues help, too, and Bettman affirmed that will be the case this season, saying the league is on pace to once again earn record revenues. So the question is, if the league has done extraordinarily well and is now flush with all this extra money, if the players aren’t going to make improvements then, when do they?

The players hate escrow payments. But there is any number of creative ways to get around that. The league could simply put a limit on them or fix an exchange rate for the Canadian dollar for revenue and payment purposes. Or tweak the definition of hockey-related revenues (HRR) to modify what comes out of the players’ share. Or perhaps revisit the 50-50 split.

You can see where this is going. The league is going to portray itself as wanting to continue the momentum the sport is enjoying and, from the perspective of the average fan, that’s a brilliant strategy. Isn’t Connor McDavid making $12.5 million a year, and aren’t fourth-line scrubs guaranteed a salary of $650,000? That’s right there on Page 1 of the Owners’ Negotiation Playbook. So the league will say it doesn’t want to pick a fight, that it no longer needs drastic measures to save the industry, but that will likely last until the moment the players start asking for some of the things they’ve surrendered be given back to them. Then it’s a negotiation, and those hills start building up.

We’re not here to throw water on what is clearly a feel-good situation. And a labor disruption could very well be avoided this time around. But to think it’s going to be pleasant and easy would be naive, because the two sides haven’t even started asking the tough questions or having the uncomfortable conversations yet.

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