CHICAGO – The NHL and NHL Players’ Association will sit down Friday in New York to continue negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. If the talks extend into Saturday or Sunday, that will be a very, very good thing. And it will go a long way toward determining whether or not the NHLPA will exercise its option to opt out of the agreement on Sept. 15.
Things could go any number of ways, including a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would set out the framework for a new deal. While that’s not likely to happen this quickly, there was a sense after the NHLPA met with 49 players – the majority of whom make up the executive committee – that it is indeed a possibility, albeit a remote one. One thing is certain, however. There is more momentum for a deal earlier in the process this time around than there ever has been in any of the previous negotiations. Or as NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr put it: “I guess the best way to put it is the discussions have been cordial, they’ve been pleasant. It doesn’t mean there haven’t been disagreements and significant disagreements, but it has so far at least been free from rancor. And that’s a big improvement.”
As far as his confidence level in where the next round of negotiations will end up, Fehr was about as optimistic as someone in his situation could be. “I can’t predict what the result is going to be,” Fehr said. “I suppose what I can say is that if I thought it was a complete waste of time, I’d find something else to do.”
There is almost no appetite on either side to get involved in an imbroglio that would see the game shut down once again. That doesn’t mean the NHLPA won’t opt out of the deal, but even if it does it simply means there will still be a year for the two sides to negotiate. “Nothing happens on the 16th of September if there’s a reopening,” Fehr said. “You’ve got to hope that the discussions will proceed on the basis that both sides want a deal and however difficult it is, you’re going to try to find a way to make one.”
One of the dynamics at play here is that there has been labor peace in the NHL since 2012-13 and there has been a ton of turnover among the players since that time. With the NHL evolving into a younger league where more young players have a bigger impact on the product, there are a good number of players who have never experienced a labor dispute in their careers. Could that be a factor as negotiations move forward? Perhaps, but there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for a showdown with the league from either veterans or young players. “From the last time I was involved in 2012 and ’13, there are not a lot of those guys kicking around,” said Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “I’m almost the older guy now. I don’t want to run my mouth off, but there are some things we feel strongly about. If you get yourself into a lockout situation, it’s a long, tough process on everybody, especially if you want to play hockey.”
The fact is, there is a fair bit of positive momentum for the game at the moment. There is a new American television deal on the horizon. The World Cup of Hockey is a revenue source that could be tapped if both sides can find a way to extend this deal and retain labor peace. Legalized gambling is a revenue stream the league hasn’t even tapped into yet and the advancements in player tracking offer some intriguing possibilities on that front. There is room for revenues to grow and if the league can do that, combined with some tweaks that will see the rate of escrow reduced for the players, there is definitely a deal here to be made. “You always would like (revenues) to be better,” Fehr said. “I’m hopeful about the new TV contracts as a starting point and I think Gary (NHL commissioner Bettman) is, too.”
It’s almost eerie, almost too good to be true, how much harmony there is between the two sides at the moment. Bettman and the owners have made it clear on three occasions that they have no problem shutting the game down for an extended period of time to get what they want, and that strategy has given them just about everything they’ve wanted in terms of a hard salary cap and cost certainty. The dynamic has shifted, to be sure. In past negotiations, the owners were the ones trying to make gains, while the players were intent on retaining as much of the status quo as possible. This time, however, it’s completely the other way around. But also unlike other years, there is more reason for optimism than ever before.
“I think everyone is happy about where our game is at,” Toews said. “You watch the playoffs this year and it’s impossible to predict. I did a bracket with my family and my girlfriend and I think I got one pick right in the first round. It makes it fun and exciting for everybody and I think that’s a reflection of where our game is right now.”
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