SAN JOSE – It could be interesting, very interesting, to compare what the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association are saying 20 months from now to the tone both sides have taken at the 2019 All-Star Game. With less than eight months to go before either side can reopen the collective bargaining agreement and trigger it to expire in September 2020, there is a palpable feeling on both sides of the table that a new CBA can be negotiated without a labor disruption for the first time in more than 30 years.
The last time the two sides struck a new agreement without some sort of imbroglio was 1988. But, to be fair, they managed to extend an agreement that was supposed to end in 1998 for another six seasons, which preserved labor peace prior to the Mother of All Lockouts™ in 2004-05. When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman held his state-of-the-union news conference during the all-star festivities, he seemed buoyant about the possibility of getting a deal done without interruption. And Mathieu Schneider, who was there representing the NHLPA, was in lockstep with the commissioner. The two sides managed to come to an agreement on puck- and player-tracking technology that will come into effect next season. That’s a nice start, but it doesn’t do anything to address escrow payments or the speculation that the league might shoot for more than 50 percent of revenues.
Not long after announcing the league is, “once again on pace to earn record league revenues,” Bettman essentially said there is little reason why the two sides should not be able to come together. “Discussions have been cordial and productive, even though they’ve been preliminary,” Bettman said. “I believe I was quoted a couple of weeks ago in Seattle that we’re not looking for a fight.”
Schneider also painted a pretty rosy picture of relations between the players and the league. But it’s also easy to be optimistic when there is still so much time before the difficult issues have to be discussed and while the two sides have met several times, they haven’t even gotten into the meat of those issues. But, then again, at least both sides are not sniping at one another, which hasn’t always been the case. So there’s that.
“I would just say that the thing that is notably absent is the tension,” said Schneider, special assistant to NHLPA executive director Don Fehr. “We’ve been able to have constructive dialogue and an openness and when you get into CBA negotiations, and I go back to 2012 as my only and most recent experience, there were walls built up when you walked into that room for the first meeting and that’s not there right now and I think it’s only a good thing.”
One of the major components of an agreement will be how both sides approach an international hockey calendar. The league and the NHLPA have talked about holding an international event in lieu of the All-Star Game in 2021 and the sense is the union would like to make it another World Cup, while the league is a little more dialed back in its objectives. This season is the first where roughly half of the league has a week furlough before the All-Star Game, while the other half has a week off after the event. A World Cup would require a full shutdown for a couple of weeks, something the league said wasn’t feasible when it was grasping for excuses for skipping the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“(The players) understand the value of that property,” Schneider said. “But we can’t just say, ‘We’re going to hold the World Cup and it’s going to be the most important tournament.’ It has to be built up over time and we’ve talked about trying to develop a long-term calendar on international (hockey) and the potential of having (a World Cup) in February could make things easier and more palatable for the guys. But players just don’t know, but it’s certainly something we’ll want to discuss.”
Schneider also made it clear that even if the players participate in a World Cup-type event in 2021, that would not preclude them from going to the Olympics in Beijing just a year later. “Players view the Olympics as the premier best-on-best tournament and I don’t see the World Cup taking its place anytime soon. Right now, the Olympics are No. 1.”
Well, that’s encouraging, as is the tone of discussions at the moment. So it would be best to remember what both the league and the players said this weekend and hold them to their words. In order to get what almost everyone wants, labor peace along with Olympic participation and a reliable international calendar, the sides of both feet must continue to be held to the fire.