For long-time hockey fans who’ve been scarred by the memory of even one of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s career trifecta of lockouts, Monday brought a bit of news that, to some eyes, should have been filed under “unexpected.”
The NHLPA announced it was declining its option to reopen the current collective bargaining agreement, only days after the league announced it was declining its option to do the same. The gist of those duelling decisions meant a guarantee of labour peace until at least 2022, when the current agreement is set to expire. And there was more: Both the league and the players’ association spoke of their intent to continue negotiations on an extension to the current CBA that could extend that peace a few more years beyond that.
Could these possibly be the same two parties who, when last they engaged in talks while saddled with an imminent deadline, could only seem to agree on matters of mutual mistrust and liberal leaks of misinformation? Could these possibly be the same two historical adversaries whose squabbles cost hockey the handing out of the Stanley Cup in 2005 and, during the lockout of 2012-13, put the NHL on hold for most of four months, reducing an 82-game season to 48 and leaving the sport the lesser for it?
Ah, the lockout of 2012-13. U.S. president Barack Obama publicly scolded the two sides for disregarding the feelings of hockey fans while bickering over billions. Maple Leafs players, among them Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk, complained about being barred from making reservations at the team-owned sports bar across the road from the rink. And, as always, all players lost, agreeing to give-back upon give-back to a merciless league that tried hard to break them.
Still, the takeaway from that debacle was that both sides took their hits. There was a feeling, in the wake of another tedious exercise in greed, that Bettman might have presided over his last lockout — that retirement might be in the offing. There was a feeling NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr might have been making a cameo appearance in hockey after making his name in baseball. In times of conflict, after all, it’s the chess masters whose moves get scrutinized and second-guessed and resented. It’s the leaders whose reputations take the grimmest beatings.
Fast forward more than a half-dozen years and maybe it says something that neither Bettman nor Fehr don’t appear to be going anywhere. Both still in charge of their respective sides despite those post-lockout murmurs of their imminent demise, they certainly don’t appear to be going anywhere near another labour battle.
“While players have concerns with the current CBA, we agree with the league that working together to address those concerns is the preferred course of action instead of terminating the agreement following this season,” Fehr, 71, said in a statement on Monday. “We have been having discussions with the league about an extension of the CBA and expect that those talks will continue.”
Added Bettman, 67, in a league-issued release: “We are pleased with the NHL Players’ Association’s decision. We look forward to continuing to work with the NHLPA for the benefit of all stakeholders, especially our fans.”
Right. The Dark Lord of Lockouts is “especially” working his butt off for the good of the butts in the seats. Clearly you don’t need a lockout to fire up the bizarro-world spin machine.
And clearly the players still have their qualms, chief among them the escrow payments that have lopped about 10 per cent off the typical players’ paycheque over the past seven-plus years.
“Escrow is still the main topic, and what we want to try and fix,” Bo Horvat, the Vancouver Canucks union rep, told reporters on Monday. “But at the same time — good news for the fans. There’s going to be hockey for the next few years … Obviously we’re happy to play hockey for the next three years, but there’s still some things that have got to be done.”
You can understand where the players are coming from here, even if you can quibble with escrow being at the top of their list of complaints. Escrow, after all, is simply a matter of accounting. Because salaries are based off a projection of hockey-related revenue the league and players divide 50-50, escrow payments go into a reserve fund to ensure a proper split. When projections fall short, as they typically have, the balance is made up with escrow. The alternative is lowering the salary cap, and in turn lowering salaries, which is an even less popular option. It seems simple, and yet even the savviest of players seem hung up on the issue.
“A) escrow and B) escrow,” Jonathan Toews was quoted as saying a while back, after he was asked to name the two biggest issues in labour talks.
Reopening the deal would have seen the CBA come due a year from Sunday. And if you reopen, you declare your intention to ignite a labour war, or something close. If you reopen, it’s giving a commissioner who’s scored victories over the union in three previous lockouts a reason to summon his powers for a four-peat.
So playing nice makes sense, to some eyes. These are boom times in pro sports. And even if the other big three North American leagues have made bigger leaps into different financial stratospheres — even if Bettman can be accused of a lack of vision that’s forever failed to maximize revenue — the NHL’s got Seattle expansion in the offing, plus the prospect of gambling-related revenue and a U.S. TV deal that’s expected to bring with it an influx of cash.
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Which is why, to other eyes, this would have been a good time for the players to arm for battle. With expansion and gambling and a new TV deal lining up, more than a few player advocates saw this as a moment to test the league’s appetite for conflict. The league clearly didn’t want a fight. Which is why the players might have been smart to push for one — or, at least, make a bluff to that effect.
But that’s an argument for the backrooms. For fans of a sport marred by plenty of greed-induced interruptions, it’s difficult to make an argument against a staying of an unexpected peace.