Olympic participation, CBA negotiations merging as one

David Amber and Nick Kypreos discuss the Board of Governors meetings and the possibility of Olympic participation from the NHL.

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Wait a second. Are we talking about an Olympic discussion or a collective bargaining negotiation?

Right now it’s tough to tell them apart.

It appears that the path to Pyeongchang for NHL players lies in establishing prolonged labour peace. Even after the NHL Players’ Association officially shot down the idea of extending the CBA through 2025 in exchange for continued Olympic participation, the door still seems to be wide open to explore that framework further.

In fact, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came out of the board of governors meeting on Thursday night and indicated that owners who aren’t in favour of the Olympics might be swayed by a grander plan.

“If there’s a suggestion that the players’ association wants to talk about, then we can discuss anything,” said Bettman. “Not everything we do (is a fight). We do a lot of business together; we just did a World Cup magnificently together with great co-operation and partnership. Not everything we did was a knock-down, drag-out negotiation.”

It’s an intriguing idea – this notion of previously unrealized peace in our times.

And it was certainly curious to see NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and several of his lieutenants wandering the halls of The Breakers resort on Wednesday night. Officially, they were said to be here to discuss “industry growth fund initiatives” and, while that meeting did occur, it’s not a stretch to imagine that something else might have been going on as well.

The toughest hurdle to negotiate might simply be time.

Each of the parties with a stake in the Olympic discussions needs to get a resolution sooner rather than later. Throwing a CBA extension into the mix would seem to complicate an already complicated set of talks.

Bettman says the notion of it developed organically during a recent meeting where the sides discussed the possibility of staging another World Cup in September 2020. However, that leaves open the possibility of the current CBA expiring right when the tournament ends – something that marred the 2004 World Cup.

A CBA extension would allow for more planning and certainty.

“If (Olympic participation) was viewed as more than a one-off, if we were doing something grander on a more predictable, more involved international schedule – that might interest people more than just saying ‘let’s shut down for two and a half weeks and go to Pyeongchang,’ ” said Bettman. “I was looking for something that might make this more appealing, more sensible, more involved as part of some grander scale.”

A skilled negotiator once told me that he always subtly shows his counterpart the path to an agreement in the early stages of talks. So even though it was of little surprise that the NHLPA turned down the NHL’s first suggestion of a CBA extension, it does seem that Bettman was pointing Fehr and the players in a specific direction.

Without prompting, the commissioner even weighed in on the escrow system that NHLers have come to loathe. In basic terms, money is withheld from each player’s cheque – to the tune of 16 per cent this quarter – to ensure that overall league revenues are split 50-50 with the owners.

“This system, as it works, depends on the escrow,” said Bettman. “The reason the cap is set where it is and in fact player contracts are somewhat inflated beyond what the system calls for is because there’s an escrow to recapture that extra money.

“If you lowered the cap then you would have less escrow. It’s that simple.”

The system also dictates that the more revenue generated the more everyone benefits. To that end, a busier and better planned international schedule comes with some intriguing opportunities to grow the sport.

When you look at it that way, there’s some incentive to make this about more than just the 2018 Olympics.

“We said, ‘You know, if you look at the calendar and get rid of the (CBA) reopeners and you extend by three years that gets you two Olympics, two World Cups and two Ryder Cups – whatever form the Ryder Cup takes,” said Bettman. “Most importantly, it tells the world and our fans there’s nine years of labour peace after this season, which we thought would be a good thing even if there were things that we might want to change.”

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