A strange sensation may have washed over you early Monday evening.
Call it the promise of labour peace in our time.
Unless you are middle-aged, or took a keen interest in labour negotiations before grade school, this isn’t something you’ve experienced courtesy of the NHL. Before this announcement of a memorandum of understanding to extend the collective bargaining agreement through the 2025-26 season, if ratified, you have known the 2012-13 lockout … and the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out the entire season … and the 1994-95 lockout … and the 1992 strike.
That dispute-filled past provides context every bit as important to this agreement as our uncertain present, which underpins the new deal. The transition rules and a four-year extension to the CBA are built around sharing the economic pain brought on by the coronavirus pandemic until more prosperous days return.
Let it be said that this is what leadership looks like in difficult times.
Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr found sensible solutions to shared problems without resorting to any of the hostility or grandstanding these negotiations are typically known for. They and their respective leadership teams started meeting out of the spotlight last summer before recalibrating on the fly and piecing together the framework for this agreement amid a health crisis that poses a significant threat to their industry and many others.
That required the CBA to be negotiated on a parallel track to agreements governing intensive return-to-play protocols and the location of hub cities. It was done while also finalizing the details of a 24-team tournament to complete the season and agreeing to a new critical dates calendar with the Stanley Cup set to be awarded in early October.
Looking back now, it all seems so orderly.
But that belies the fact it was a tangled unpredictable mess when the season was put on pause in March, like a big ball of yarn strewn across the floor.
The CBA must now be ratified as part of an all-encompassing return-to-play package because the entire thing is inextricably linked. The NHL Board of Governors will hold its vote in the coming days and needs three-quarters support. Once the NHL Players’ Association gets approval from its Executive Board and concludes a period where it educates players about the deal, a full membership vote will be taken that requires a majority for ratification.
If everything goes forward without any hiccups, they could be in position to officially announce the planned resumption of the season by Friday.
There will likely be some opposition votes cast on the players’ end — “It won’t be a landslide,” predicted one source, who has been part of NHLPA calls throughout the negotiations — but it’s important to note that the agreement permits any player to opt out of the summer restart without penalty if he does so within 72 hours of the ratification process being completed.
The NHL intends to hold its summer tournament in Edmonton and Toronto with games starting on Aug. 1, which if successful would mark the first time the Stanley Cup playoffs were held entirely in Canada since 1925, according to Sportsnet Stats.
Getting to the stage where a restart was possible required a complex rethinking of the NHL’s economic system. Even though the current CBA was due to run through September 2022, a negotiated extension was needed with the league set to lose more than a $1 billion for the 2019-20 season and even more than that in a 2020-21 campaign that will likely be played in buildings at less than full capacity because of COVID-related restrictions.
Under the new deal, players will defer 10 per cent of next season’s salary and see another 20 per cent contributed to capped escrow. The upper limit of the salary cap will be held flat at $81.5 million and remain there until hockey-related revenue (HRR) returns to $4.8 billion — at which point the cap will start being calculated using a new formula that relies on the actual HRR from two seasons back, plus the projected HRR from the season prior.
The bonus pool for the pandemic playoffs is doubling to $32 million and, as first reported by colleague Elliotte Friedman, Olympic participation will resume for Beijing 2022 and Milan 2026, pending a subsequent agreement with the IOC.
The players will also see increasingly favourable escrow caps applied throughout the deal while the length of the agreement will be extended by a year if the debt owed back to owners exceeds $125 million at its conclusion. More CBA details can be found here.
Lawyers for the NHL and NHLPA had some late nights in the last week while grinding over the final details of the tentative deal, but it looked nothing like the manner in which the current agreement got across the finish line.
That happened at 4:45 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2013 at the end of a marathon 16-hour bargaining session inside the Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Bettman and Fehr looked exhausted while sharing the news with reporters who camped out in the lobby through the night, ending a lockout that spanned 113 days with Fehr saying: “Hopefully, within a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating — not the two of us.”
This time around they were barely seen at all.
Difficult days demanded a different approach.
And it’s greatly increased the odds we’ll soon emerge from a paused season with the chance to see players compete for the Stanley Cup as a result.