If NHLers really want to go to the Olympics, the NHLPA can take charge

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk explains to HC at Noon why he doesn’t like players at the Olympics, but also why he’s going to respect the NHL’s decision either way.

Every once in a while, when it’s convenient, NHL players like to pretend it’s 1950 again and they’re being forced to do something against their will. Or not allowed to do something they want to do.

They like to pretend James Norris is running the Red Wings and Conn Smythe is sending his players to work at his gravel pit in the summers, pretend players don’t have a say on an important matter.

Problem is, it’s 2017, and anybody who understands the labour developments of the NHL over the past quarter-century realizes it’s not 1950 any more, and players aren’t indentured servants without rights. Eddie Shore’s not around to skate them until midnight anymore.

The reality is the players can’t be forced to do anything. Virtually every element of their professional existence is governed by clauses and subsections of their union’s collective bargaining agreement with NHL owners.

They get 50 per cent of league revenues as mandated by the CBA signed in 2013, which ended a four-month lockout. That agreement included hard rules on many things, from waivers to free agency to pensions to visors to mandated days off.

They have 50 per cent of the power over rules and anything that has to do with the NHL’s competition committee. When they didn’t like rule proposals to outlaw staged fighting, they blocked them. When they didn’t like a proposed realignment of the league’s 30 teams, they blocked it.

Indeed, the power of the NHL Players’ Association today leaves many old-time NHL executives frustrated and dismayed. The general managers, for example, used to hold their winter meeting with the understanding that whatever they decided would usually be rubber-stamped by the league’s board of governors in June.

Now, it has to pass muster with the player representatives on the competition committee first. Drives the GMs nuts.

Need one more example? The league has desperately been trying to make goalie gear smaller, particularly in the past year. They haven’t been able to do it, aside from a barely noticeable slimming of goalie pants. Why? Well, because the goalies don’t seem to want it, or at least not enough of them do, and the league can’t force them into smaller equipment.

It’s from that standpoint that it’s time to say something loudly and clearly.

If NHL players really wanted to go to the Olympics every four years, they could. They would simply have had to bargain it as part of the ’13 agreement.

And they didn’t.

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Maybe the owners would have fought it. But if the players had made enough noise over it, if they’d made it a priority, if they had taken less in other areas in order to gain control over Olympic participation, there’s a very good chance they could have achieved that goal.

Most of the focus has been on the NHL’s disagreement with the IOC and IIHF, and perhaps not enough on the fact this is clearly an issue the league sees as a bargaining chip. Even earlier this year, commissioner Gary Bettman opened that door again, quietly hinting that if the players were willing to do a side deal of some sort in order to participate in the 2018 Games in South Korea, he would be all ears. Perhaps the players would eliminate an opt-out clause they have for 2019, thereby extending the deal to 2022.

But the NHLPA wasn’t interested, or at least, they understood that they’d have to give up that or something else in a negotiation in order to gain control over going to the Olympics.

Don Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, told Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet The Fan 590 Thursday that it has been a “legitimate expectation” on the part of the players that they would be able to play in future Olympic Games, and that it was “an act of patriotism as much as anything else.”

Fehr said that the players didn’t collectively bargain the Olympic issue in 2013 “because it never had been bargained.”

“No one thought at the time it was something essential to be bargained,” he said.

Fehr suggested, however, that if NHLers aren’t in South Korea, Olympic participation could become a more important bargaining issue if the CBA is re-opened in 2019.

“If somebody pulls the plug (on South Korea), somebody pulls the plug,” he said. “But it’s not going to be the players.”

Part of the reason the players didn’t bargain the issue in ’13 may be that while prominent NHL players like to be quoted saying the NHL should be going to Korea and all the Olympics, most NHL players – about 80 per cent of them – don’t go to the Olympics and never will. It’s just a nice holiday in the middle of the season when it happens every four years. In other words, for most NHLPA members, the Olympics aren’t a priority.

If the players who want to go to the 2018 Games want to complain, they should complain to Fehr and their own union for not making it a big enough priority four years ago. Modern players don’t give owners anything that isn’t spelled out in the CBA anymore, and the same goes the other way around.

The owners were able to maintain the final say over Olympic participation in the last collective bargaining agreement, and given that a majority of them seem disinclined to interrupt the season to make it happen, it’s their call. The players have no CBA rights that allow them to dictate to the owners on this issue.

Sometimes, players don’t seem to make the connection between what they negotiated and what they didn’t. For example, when you hear players wistfully suggest the game would be better without the instigator penalty, the response should be that it could happen if their representatives put forward a proposal at the competition committee. The rules of the game, in other words, are as much the responsibility of the players in 2017 as they are of the league or the owners. That’s why the league went to a five-minute, three-on-three format for overtime last year. The league had a different plan in mind, but the players preferred their idea.

So when it comes to the Olympics, if NHLPA members don’t get to decide whether they play or not, they need to talk to their union leadership. Maybe they can still get that changed if they’re willing to sacrifice something else.

But don’t bet on it.