OAKVILLE, ONT. – Donald Fehr stands on the driving range at Glen Abbey Golf Club and swings away at a series of questions facing the National Hockey League Players’ Association this off-season.
The players whose union he oversees aren’t participating in the Winter Olympics. Some are still waiting to cash cheques for last fall’s World Cup of Hockey, a tournament with a future as uncertain as the next collective bargaining agreement.
The salary cap has been growing at a snail’s pace. The gap between the NBA and NHL’s revenue has widened in favour of basketball. And last month, a few select player agents went public saying a group of unnamed NHLers are dissatisfied with the PA’s leadership.
Yet Connor McDavid just knocked out the greatest contract — $100 million over eight years — in hockey’s cap era, and Carey Price and Patrick Marleau aren’t starving either.
Ostensibly, the union’s executive director is here in Oakville to support the annual NHLPA Golf Classic, which has now contributed $3.6 million to various player-supported charities over its 25-year history.
But Fehr gave his take on a number of topics, from McDavid’s payday to Alex Ovechkin’s Olympic dream, from Price’s signing bonuses to the future of the World Cup.
Here are the highlights:
Donald Fehr on the Connor McDavid contract and the perception that the PA doesn’t like seeing individual players leave money on the table:
"What we want is for players to understand in an individual situation what the atmosphere is, what their bargaining rights are now, what their bargaining rights might be a year or two or five in the future; where they want to live; what team and for what coach they want to play; and then to make the best judgment they can. Some players might say, ‘Look, all I want is a one- or two-year contract. I want to renegotiate after that.’ Others are going to want the security.
"We don’t attempt to micromanage what players negotiate. Somebody will ask us, or ask staff, ‘If I get a contract for $10, is that maximizing what my value is? Or is that a little short, and if so, by what amount?’ We will tell them. But that’s an individual player decision along with his agent; we don’t get into the middle of that. You have individual bargaining for a reason.
"When all athletes — and this is true in all four sports, as far as I know, certainly in baseball — consider what kind of contract they want, there are a myriad of factors that go into it that don’t necessarily relate to what’s the top dollar amount on the line."
On the impact to the union of the cap era’s first $100-million deal:
"It’s a benchmark you look to. It’s something that’s good to see, and we hope there’ll be a few more as time goes on. I’m sure there will be. Having said that, there aren’t too many people like him."
On whether we’ll see an individual hockey player sign a maximum contract like in the NBA:
"Yeah, I think it will [happen], but the dynamics are different between the two sports. You’re dealing with vastly fewer players. You’re dealing with vastly more revenue. The NHL’s revenues have fallen way behind the other sports. Basketball’s exploded. We used to be maybe 20 per cent behind. Now it’s 50 per cent or more behind.
"There’s more fluidity in the system over there to do that. You also have another difference, and that is that it’s fair to say a single basketball player can have more of an impact on his team and season than any single hockey player, no matter how good he might be. One of the things I’ve learned in spades since I’ve been here is that this really is the ultimate team sport. You can’t win this by yourself. It’s not possible.
"Basketball is somewhere between $6.5 and $7 billion, and we’re hovering below $4.5 [billion].”
On how to close revenue gap on the NBA:
"I’ll have you ask Gary [Bettman] about that, but from our standpoint, I think the international markets are key. Look, there’s only three ways to raise revenue. You can charge your existing customers more money—it’s going to be pretty hard to sell more tickets at the ACC at the moment, for example. You can go get new ones. Or you can do both.
"We are, I certainly believe, pretty well situated to take advantage of international markets. There has to be a lot of investment in the NHL [that] ownership is willing to put in, and we’ll see if they do that. We’ll see if [exhibition games in China] is a big step, a baby step, or the only step."
On the slow rise of the salary cap:
"How happy are we that there’s a salary cap at all? The answer is not. Everybody understands this, but the purpose of a salary cap is to place an artificial upward limit on what players get paid, which is below what the owners would otherwise pay.
"It’s not good. I’ve also long believed it’s not good for the promotion and marketing of the game, and we know from baseball it’s clearly not essential for success.
"In terms of how the cap has functioned in connection with expectations over the last several years, there have been a number of problems, including the Canadian dollar and including that the cap is predicated on the clubs spending to the midpoint, more or less. If most of them are spending above the midpoint, that creates escrow all by itself. The Canadian dollar is beginning to climb a little bit, we expect some revenue increases this year, so hopefully we’ll see a major turn for the better over this coming season."
On the number of players who have approached the PA wishing to play in the Olympics despite the NHL’s non-participation in 2018:
"Any player who thought he had an opportunity to be on a team, if asked, would say they’d like to play on it and can we do something about it. Then you discuss what the options are.
"Players believe playing in the Olympics is important for all kinds of reasons, but not the least of which is pride of country and patriotism, and that matters. We’ve got players from all kinds of different countries in the NHL."
On the ramifications of a star like Alex Ovechkin attending PyeongChang anyway:
"We’ve done the work. We discuss that with the player and his representative, but we don’t discuss it publicly. But it is an individual club decision on whether he would go."
On the near future of the World Cup of Hockey:
"I’d like to believe that we are moving into an era where there would be a whole series of international events that we would do jointly with the NHL that would really expand the game and open up new markets and create new opportunities. I would be less than honest, however, if I were to suggest the Olympic decision the NHL made unilaterally when everything was in place, does not raise some serious questions."
On whether players have been paid for playing in the 2016 World Cup:
"The prize money and the stipends and so on, we have actually just about finished all the accounting. When you pay out a net proceeds number, you have to have all the receipts in, you have to have all the expenses paid. The best guess we have now is that they’ll be paid sometime in the first half of next month."
On signing bonus-heavy deals, like those of Carey Price and Patrick Marleau, being constructed as such to give the player lockout protection:
"My judgement is, players would be foolish not to take into consideration the possible outcomes when the contract expires or if either party terminates it early."
On a few agents, such as Anton Thun, publicly saying there is a group of players unhappy with the PA’s leadership:
"It’s a complete democracy. The players can do whatever they want to do. And I mean what I’m about to say quite literally: They want to change the executive directors and staff three times a week, they can do it. What we do, whenever we hear from players, is reach out, talk to them, indicate that they can come to the office at our expense, or we’ll fly out and meet them, and you talk through the issues. That said, we’ve had executive board meetings, we’ve had a lot of conversations… it’s not something which concerns me in a large-scale sense. In a short-scale sense, obviously you’d want all players to understand and be on board."
On the cap inflator versus escrow:
"Whenever you have a bargaining unit in which some players have long-term contracts and others are negotiating, there’s a natural tension between the players that want to hold down what future contracts might be a little bit because they might then get a lower escrow on their own contracts and players that want to maximize their flexibility at the bargaining table.
"Unions face, in the ordinary course, all kinds of differing interests among their members. The job of the union is to work through that. You encourage discussion. You encourage debate. If players want to argue, you let them argue. And eventually they come to a conclusion as to what’s best.
"This year was an odd year, but it made it easier to hold down the escalator because you had expansion, and that takes up some of the slack."
On whether he’ll make sure Olympic participation is written into the next CBA:
"The next CBA is like the last one: The players will make those judgments at the time based on the available options. There’s a myth out there that collective bargaining is about equity or fairness or justice or doing the right thing. I’m not saying any of those things are irrelevant; certainly they’re not. But in bargaining, the options you choose from is the best deal you can get from the owners or not returning from the lockout or staying out on strike. It’s a binary choice, and the players have to make that judgement on an ongoing basis.
"There will be a raft of things involved in the next collective bargaining round, whether it’s in two or three years or five or six, or later than that. You’ll have salaries, you’ll have cap issues. I’m pretty sure there’ll be issues relating to health care, pension. There may be rules, travel, all kinds of things that are out there. They Olympics will certainly be one, but it would be a mistake to isolate it."