This week’s failure by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association to agree on keeping their collective agreement in place cast a big shadow on the prospects of avoiding another labour disruption by September, 2020.
This in turn threw a wrench into the major issue connected with this, the participation of NHL players in international events such as the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Unless you are a diehard fan of the World Cup of Hockey – and surely those are rare birds given how the event has only been held occasionally this century – this development was not a catastrophe, at least not yet.
But it does not bode well for labour peace in the NHL, even if both sides give the impression that they do not think there are any issues worth a strike or lockout. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman even went so far as to say recently he was not “looking for a fight” with the players, which raised a lot of eyebrows considering the three lockouts under his belt.
It is safe to say that if the NHL and the NHLPA cannot settle the relatively few labour issues between them by Sept. 1 of this year, then all of this could blow up into an ugly mess. Fans could see the full range of madness: strikes, lockouts, no Olympics and no World Cup of Hockey. The latter is already dead, at least for 2020.
The Sept. 1 deadline is critical because international hockey is once again part of collective bargaining. On that date, the NHL players have the right to notify the NHL they will terminate the current agreement in September, 2020. On Sept. 15, the NHL owners have the same right. If neither side pulls the plug, the collective agreement can run until September, 2022.
The goal of this week’s meeting between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and their respective teams was to ensure that there would be a 2020 World Cup of Hockey. Because of the preparation time required for the tournament, both sides said they needed to extend the current labour deal by this week − or at least agree not to terminate it by September − to allow for agreement on the World Cup.
Also, there was no way the NHL wanted another fiasco similar to 2004 when the World Cup of Hockey ended in mid-September and the players were locked out the next day.
What these people need to do now is put the World Cup out of its misery. Despite all the talk about creating a high-profile event they can control and profit from, unlike the Olympics, neither side clearly cares all that much about the World Cup.
If they did, they could have started negotiating over the collective agreement long before this. Then again, both sides have a history of not getting serious about talks until some sort of hard deadline is at hand.
What the players really care about is the Olympics and it was a crushing disappointment, at least to the ones who get to go, when the NHL pulled out of the 2018 Winter Games over various money disputes. The owners don’t like the Olympics because of the disruption of the NHL’s regular season, but it’s clear they love the current collective agreement. That’s why Bettman told the players back in 2017 that they could go to the 2018 Olympics if they agreed to extend the labour deal.
The players did not bite on Bettman’s offer because they want a solution for their major labour issue, salary escrow. This is an unwelcome side effect of the salary cap, which was introduced after the 2004-05 lockout.
Player salaries have to fit under their 50-per-cent share of the NHL’s hockey-related revenue (HRR). But the exact revenue for each season is not known at the time contracts are negotiated. Thus, a portion of each player’s salary is held in escrow during the season and into the summer until it is determined what the revenue was. They may or may not get some or all of it back, depending on how well the league did that season.
Since 2005 escrow rates, which are adjusted in each quarter of the season, have often exceeded 10 per cent and sometimes even 20 per cent. The most recent rate, in this season’s second quarter, is 13.5 per cent, which is a hefty bite out of million-dollar salaries.
This is essentially the only obstacle for labour peace and Olympic participation, at least as far as the players and owners are concerned. Solving it means playing around with the salary cap in ways that are far too boring to recount here but there is no reason the league and the players cannot get it done in the next seven months.
Then all that remains is to persuade the IOC to meet the NHL’s demands to have its travel, insurance and accommodation costs covered for Beijing in 2022, plus a little extra cake for all concerned. Easy, right?