NHLPA boss Don Fehr takes umbrage with ‘unilateral’ NHL over Olympics, salary cap

Before teeing off at the NHLPA’s 25th annual charity golf tournament, union head Don Fehr teed off on the NHL about the salary cap and the league’s decision to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics

The NHLPA held its 25th annual charity golf tournament on Wednesday, with more than 40 current and former players taking part. The day raised more than $125,000 for a variety of causes, from autism research to concussion awareness, and icon Ted Lindsay was even there.

Union head Don Fehr (who had a 1-on-1 sitdown with Lindsay at one point in the clubhouse) spoke to a small group of reporters before the festivities kicked off and he did not hold back on his opinions. While the relationship between the NHL and the Players’ Association seemed to be pretty peachy for a while there (the World Cup of Hockey was a joint venture), the decision by the NHL’s owners to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea had the hockey world flustered, particularly since the league tried to use future collective bargaining agreement negotiations as a bargaining chip for participation.

It’s been a few months, but the union’s members haven’t forgotten the gambit. “Players believe that playing in the Olympics is important for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is pride of country and patriotism,” Fehr said. “And that matters.”

The Olympic decision has already had an impact on free agency when it comes to Russian players, while Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin has long made it known that he wants to play in the Games, whether the NHL gives its blessing or not. Fehr wouldn’t comment on the discussions the union has had with individual players on the matter, but did note that the NHLPA is always there for consultation on such matters.

Another issue Fehr’s crew can help on? Contract talks. There’s an interesting debate these days about how much players should ask for when they are inking new deals. Connor McDavid just signed a $100-million extension, but he’s actually worth more to the Edmonton Oilers. Taking a hometown discount will help his team re-sign Leon Draisaitl long-term and continue to build towards a Stanley Cup, but is that McDavid’s job? For his part, Fehr said the union doesn’t micromanage individual contract negotiations. Some players want fit, some want flexibility and some want to play in a certain market – it’s not always about money.

But there are diverging arguments when it comes to cap issues. Every year, the players can decide whether or not to escalate the cap by five percent, knowing that in the process they are likely increasing the amount of escrow that will come out of their contracts. Signed players hate the increase in escrow, but free agents like the cap escalator because it means more room for their new deals. Needless to say, Fehr is neutral on the issue.

“Whenever you have a bargaining unit in which some players have long-term agreements and others are negotiating, there’s a bit of a natural tension,” he said. “That said, unions face all kinds of differing interests among their members. The job of the union is to work through that. You encourage discussion, you encourage debate and if they want to argue, you let them argue.”

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This year, the Vegas expansion draft helped solve the problem short-term, since 23 new full-time jobs were created out of thin air. That meant the escalator wasn’t needed to increase the size of the pie. When it comes to the fact there is one pie instead of an all-you-can-eat option, on the other hand, Fehr is still militant.

“How happy are we that there is a salary cap at all? The answer is we are not,” he said. “The purpose of a salary cap is to place an artificial upward limit on what players get paid, which is what the owners would otherwise pay. And we know from baseball that it’s not necessary for success.”

If that sounds like labor sabre-rattling, well, get used to it. The current CBA can be ended in 2020 and players are already signing deals laden with signing bonuses, just in case things go south and there is another lockout.

“Players would be foolish not to take into consideration the possible outcomes when the contract expires,” Fehr said. “They have to take that into account.”

Perhaps things will turn around, though I’ll forgive you, the fans, if you’re not optimistic. Objectively speaking, the NHL and NHLPA are united by revenue and the work being done right now to open the market in China is one initiative to keep an eye on. Fehr castigated the league for falling so far behind basketball in recent years and I have to wonder if the Chinese embrace of the NBA (which went into overdrive during the Yao Ming era) was a big driver in that respect. While the World Cup of Hockey had both pros and cons, the actual organization and presentation of the event was fantastic. If the NHL and NHLPA can come together in other venues, it would definitely juice worldwide interest in the sport.

 “I would like to believe we are moving into an area where there is a whole series of international events that we would do jointly with the NHL that would really expand the game and create new opportunities,” Fehr said. “I would be less than honest, however, if I suggested that the Olympic decision the NHL made, and they made it unilaterally when everything was in place, does not raise some serious questions.”

Sooo…maybe not. But hey, everything is a negotiation in life.