NHL’s decision to not reopen CBA offers cautious hope for labour peace

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Out of the summer’s blue sky comes the strongest signal yet that the NHL and its players appear to be walking down a path towards labour peace.

Friday afternoon’s announcement that the league won’t trigger an early termination to the collective bargaining agreement was not in itself a headline-making turn of events. Public comments have been trending in that direction for awhile now from senior league officials, including deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who told Sportsnet two weeks ago that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the direction of discussions.

But consider in the larger picture what the league’s decision to forego a Sunday deadline to reopen the CBA symbolizes: It’s a clear indication that Gary Bettman and the 31 team owners aren’t anxious to wage another battle with their employees over the way revenues are divided and dispersed, which is a significant departure from how talks have gone every time they’ve sat down at the bargaining table together over the last two-plus decades.

We’ve all lived through enough lockouts to know that the league holds the upper hand in these matters. A relatively small group of billionaires can always outlast a larger, more disparate collection of millionaires when motivated enough to scrub an entire season to get what it wants.

So the fact the NHL would prefer to see the current CBA extend through September 2022 rather than September 2020 is good news for those who dream of peace in our time.

It leaves the NHL Players’ Association with a little more than two weeks to decide how it will handle the same reopener decision before a Sept. 15 deadline, but depending on who you believe it may not be much of a decision at all.

Even as NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr continues to work through the process with his membership — recently holding a series of meetings in Europe, and due to convene the union’s executive board in Chicago on Wednesday — there is considerable skepticism throughout the industry that the players will choose to trigger a 12-month termination date on the CBA.

That could expose them to another possible work stoppage as soon as September 15, 2020 and wouldn’t even guarantee that their concerns about escrow payments, Olympic participation and other pertinent issues are alleviated as part of the next deal.

In fact, as one source pointed out, it’s telling that the NHL and NHLPA already seem to be in agreement on staging another World Cup in February 2021 — provided that they can navigate this phase of CBA talks smoothly. That’s not the type of conversation you’d expect negotiators to be having if they were planning to blow up the current deal in the meantime.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Still, nothing should be considered done until it’s officially done, and Fehr said during a recent interview that he wouldn’t ask the players to formally take a vote on the reopener until much closer to mid-September. He also downplayed some of the optimism about the status of talks with the NHL because he feels they’re too early in the process to handicap where it’s headed.

"Where we are at the moment it’s really hard to make predictions," Fehr told Sportsnet on Aug. 16.

Given the history between the sides, it’s probably wise for everyone to proceed with some caution. There is still a lot of ground to cover whether the CBA ends up expiring in 12 months or 36 months.

That being said, the NHL’s change in approach shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed entirely. This is the same collection of owners that mothballed the entire 2004-05 season to install a hard salary cap and sacrificed another 34 games in 2012-13 to get the split of revenues down to 50/50.

They now seem content to only tinker with the system that governs a business generating $5-billion annually — one that is sure to grow in the next few years with the addition of a 32nd franchise in Seattle and a new national television rights deal in the U.S.

"In any CBA, the parties can always identify issues they are unhappy with and would like to see changed. This is certainly true from the league’s standpoint," Bettman said Friday in a statement.

"However, our analysis makes clear that the benefits of continuing to operate under the terms of the current CBA – while working with the Players’ Association to address our respective concerns – far outweigh the disruptive consequences of terminating it following the upcoming season."

Skilled negotiators typically send cues to the other side during collective bargaining talks that point to where the deal can be made. The message here, delivered both in words and actions, is pretty clear: The NHL believes it occupies so much common ground with the players that it doesn’t need to pick another fight it knows it can win.

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