If another labour war is brewing for the NHL, Jonathan Toews won’t be caught off-guard.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain shrugged when asked this past week about the bad, old days, like the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season and the delayed beginning of the 2012-13 season not all that long ago.
"Wouldn’t be surprised," he said. "Can’t say anyone should be surprised at this point."
The NHL announcement Monday that it won’t participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea next February shattered the harmony that appeared to be building after the return of the World Cup last year. To many players, it also seemed like an odd choice with the NHL adding games in Europe and making distinct efforts to gain a foothold in China, site of the next Winter Games in 2022.
While Olympic participation isn’t an issue central enough to all 700-plus players to trigger a work stoppage as early as 2020, frustration over how the situation was handled has led many to wonder if the next collective bargaining negotiations will take an ugly turn.
"There’s the question, of whether this puts a dent or a further dent in the relationship that might cause the players to choose to opt out or might make the negotiations more contentious whenever they occur," Tulane sports law program director Gabe Feldman said. "It’s a relationship-strain issue, and the possibility that this causes a lack of trust from the players and a feeling that although the owners may have exercised their right here that they went about it in a way that didn’t treat the players as partners and that it may be some negative foreshadowing for the next CBA."
The season was delayed for three months in 2012 before the two sides hammered out the current collective bargaining agreement. It may feel like hockey just went through this, but owners could opt as soon as Sept. 1, 2019, and the players on Sept. 15, 2019 — either of which would terminate the deal before the 2020 season instead of the scheduled end in 2022.
The league offered an agreement to go to Pyeongchang next year in exchange for extending the CBA until 2025, but players rejected what Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Justin Faulk likened to a "ridiculous" bad trade.
"I’ve never seen that done before, where players have to concede or give up something," Faulk said. "If we would’ve done that, I’m sure they still would’ve tried to pull another one to get some more out of it."
The Olympics are far from the only issue that will be on the table for the players and the league. The length of contracts and long-term injured reserve are expected to be discussed, and players also are unhappy that 15.5 per cent of their pay is withheld in escrow to ensure a 50/50 split of hockey revenue with owners; some have privately grumbled about not getting paid what their contracts say. Players’ agent Todd Diamond believes the league has a "revenue problem" because NHL business is growing at a slower pace compared with other major sports.
Not wanting to rush into a three-year CBA extension without considering the big picture led the NHL Players’ Association to reject the league’s Olympic offer, though it expected talks to continue. Toews and his counterparts around the league instead were rubbed the wrong way by the implication that owners wanted players to give something up for the first time after participating in the previous five Games .
"Just seems like it comes down to, what can they get out of us when the next CBA negotiation rolls around?" Toews said. "We’re already hitting some road bumps with something like this."
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said it was too early to comment on whether the Olympic decision might impact labour talks. An NHLPA spokesman declined comment, though executive director Don Fehr said in a Toronto radio appearance , "This is damage which lingers for a long time" because players will remember it.
"If the notion is that everybody will just forget about this, I suspect that’s not going to be the case," Fehr said on Fan 590.
George Smith, a labour relations professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, said there had appeared to be no need for an Olympics guarantee in the 2013 CBA because agreements had been reached in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010 and was well on its way in 2014. He thinks it will be discussed next time, even if it is not the central topic.
"Not all of (the players) have a realistic hope of going to the Olympics, so how far do you want to push that in collective bargaining when there’s going to be lots of other issues?" Smith said. "If there are lots of other issues, this will certainly be in the mix and just another reason to say that maybe once again the NHL and the PA are headed for some sort of dispute."
Feldman said he was concerned that the Olympics issue could "blow up a system that, relatively speaking, it working fairly well for both the players and owners."
"Could it snowball or could the sides patch things up?" Feldman said. "We’ve seen what can happen in NHL labour wars. Be careful what you wish for when talking about opting out."