As members of the NHL Players’ Association gathered for their annual golf tournament in Toronto on Wednesday, they did so with a strength of resolve between drives and putts. And their leader, Donald Fehr, set the tone with some pointed words about the union’s relationship with its employer.
Which is to say it’s deteriorating. And fast. Fehr never chooses his words cavalierly and weighs each one carefully. So when he comes out with guns blazing, it serves as a call to arms. Fehr even took a run at the NHL salary cap, something that has been a part of the two sides’ labor relations dynamic for the past 12 years. (Don’t count on that horse ever getting back in the barn.) The league’s decision to sit out the 2018 Olympics is the core issue, one that will be exacerbated when the league and NHLPA cross swords over players who want to break their contracts to play in Pyeongchang, South Korea. According to a report by TSN.com, 25 percent of the total salaries that are allocated to the 2020-21 season are being paid in signing bonuses, a clear indication the players are preparing for another labor war.
All of the goodwill that was created by the World Cup of Hockey, it seems, has been eroded in near record time. Privately, the NHLPA was not happy with the way the tournament was marketed. But it’s the Olympic decision that seems to be galvanizing the players. And one of the more outspoken player agents in the game believes it will lead to another labor war three years from now.
“Gary’s (NHL commissioner Bettman) decision to use the Olympics as a weapon against the players has dissolved the goodwill,” said player agent Allan Walsh. “I think what we have now is a poisonous relationship between the sides brought on by Gary’s actions. It has militarized players and coalesced players around the union like never before. I think it will go down as one of the biggest mistakes by any commissioner in any sport has ever made.”
That might be a little extreme, but you can see where the players are having trouble with the league’s decision. If the goal of participating in the Olympics is to grow the game globally, and the league has made it clear that Asia is an unexplored frontier, then why not go to the Games when they’re in Asia? The argument that the Olympics will be in an unfavorable time zone for North American fans is a moot point if the goal is to expose the best-on-best hockey to markets that are unfamiliar with it. Hockey fans in Canada, and a lot in the United States, will wake up at an ungodly hour to watch the games. What seems to escape the NHL’s grasp is that the games will be played in prime time, exposing the game to more than one billion people in what they have acknowledged is the target market.
The small increments in which the salary cap has risen the past couple of years is a clear indication that revenues in North America have been pretty much tapped out. So, as Fehr pointed out, you can either charge your existing customers more or try to gain new customers in unexplored markets. How can you do that if you turn your back on those very customers?
Another outspoken agent, Anton Thun, said he would not characterize the relationship between the NHL and NHLPA as having soured because he doesn’t believe there is much of a relationship to begin with. “I don’t know how to characterize it,” Thun said. “They don’t have a relationship. It’s certainly not a partnership. That’s a complete misnomer.”
Thun believes players gaining lockout protection is not an indication of hostility between the two sides. He characterized it as a business strategy that the players are taking advantage of in order to protect themselves. Thun agreed that the decision to pull out of the Olympics was a unilateral one, but says that happened “because the NHLPA didn’t protect the right to be involved in the decision and that allowed the NHL to do what it wanted to do.”
Thun was one of three agents who, according to a report, took issue with the NHLPA leadership with respect to financial transparency at the union’s recent annual meeting two weeks ago. Whether the NHLPA is in upheaval is a matter of conjecture to be sure. One agent said the three agents tried to engineer “a palace coup that gained no traction with the players.”
So things are not exactly rosy on a number of fronts these days. With the possibility of another round of collective bargaining coming upon us in another three years, there’s still time for the wounds to heal. But with the NHL’s history of shutting the game down whenever it’s faced with labor issues, well, there isn’t a lot of reason for optimism in the summer of 2017.