NHL CBA Watch – January 2019
The current NHL collective bargaining agreement is slated to expire on Sept. 15, 2022. However, the league or the NHL Players Association each have the choice for an early opt-out. The NHL can exercise that option on Sept. 1 and the PA on Sept. 19.
If either side takes the early out, the current CBA will expire on Sept. 15, 2020.
Given the contentious negotiation history between the two sides, it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s another lockout next year. However, there are indications another lengthy labor battle can be avoided.
On Nov. 4, 2018, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston first raised the possibility of labor peace, noting they were already discussing the prospect of staging a World Cup of Hockey tournament in September 2020. He indicated they were also leaning toward talks aimed at avoiding CBA negotiations at that time, depending on whether one or the other votes to opt out of the current agreement.
Johnston cited colleague Elliotte Friedman indicating the league needed to know by January 2019 if staging that tournament next September was doable. Since then, there’s a belief the league has set the upcoming All-Star weekend in San Jose (Jan 25-26) as a deadline.
TSN insider Pierre LeBrun, in a recent column for The Athletic (subscription required), also reported the two sides would meet this week to discuss the World Cup. He wondered if those talks might pave the way toward a new CBA.
According to the New York Post’s Larry Brooks, the league is doing everything it can to avoid another lockout. In his Nov. 17, 2018 column, he cited sources claiming league commissioner Gary Bettman, who already has three lockouts on his resume, isn’t keen to add a fourth.
Brooks also said there was no indication at that point in time suggesting the league’s more hawkish team owners would try to push Bettman into another hardline approach with the PA. He added the atmosphere between the two sides is much less contentious compared to previous CBA talks, suggesting there is a reason for optimism as the two sides continued preliminary talks.
Bettman certainly doesn’t sound like he’s gearing up for another labor war. Last week, the commissioner told reporters he’s “not looking for a fight”, preferring to extend or renew the CBA “with minimum fanfare.”
On Saturday, Chris Johnston reported there’s a meeting planned in Toronto later this week between the two sides. Unlike previous CBA negotiations, Johnston said there isn’t a fundamental issue that justifies another lengthy work stoppage. While smaller issues persist, he feels they’re not worth fighting about.
There’s some disagreement over whether escrow will be a significant issue. Last Saturday, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos said escrow relief was a priority for the players. But in his column in November, Brooks reported escrow doesn’t appear the significant driving force for the players as it once was.
Brooks noted the players began this season with 11.5 percent clawed back from their pay but the league informed them to expect a postseason refund of 8 percent. Instead, the PA could seek a change in the way long-term injury payments are calculated into the salary cap.
Under the current system, the players bear the cost and subsidize the league when other players go on LTIR. If that was eliminated, Brooks said it would reduce escrow and also slightly tilt the 50-50 revenue split. He felt the league will want something significant in return, such as perhaps a redefinition of hockey-related revenue to benefit the teams.
But in an interview last week with Sportsnet’s Bob McCown and John Shannon, player agent Allan Walsh insisted escrow remains the player’s primary issue. While they aren’t happy about the high rates currently withheld from their salaries, Walsh said there are formulas that could provide some flexibility to reduce the escrow burden to a level the players could accept.
Whether the league agrees to a reduced escrow rate or a revised LTIR payment system, they’ll still want something from the PA in return. Perhaps, as ESPN.com’s Greg Wyshynski wrote last week, it might be reduced term limits on player contracts.
Under the current CBA, re-signed players are limited to eight-year deals and unrestricted free agents to seven years. Wyshynski pointed out the league attempted to get seven-year limits on re-signed players and five years for UFAs during the last round of collective bargaining.
Acknowledging the players’ hatred of escrow, Wyshynski cautioned against giving up long-term contracts. If they do, he fears they’ll never get it back.
Not everyone is pleased with the prospect of linking CBA negotiations with a deadline for an agreement on the next World Cup of Hockey.
Last Thursday, TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported player agent Anton Thun believes the PA shouldn’t be negotiating a new CBA at this time. He also said he hadn’t heard from his clients if NHLPA director Donald Fehr had any mandate from the players to engage in extension talks.
With a high number of younger talent making an impact upon the league, Thun feels there could be a significant shift upon the league’s economic landscape within the next 12 months as those players start becoming eligible for new contracts. He feels the PA shouldn’t be extending the CBA until those effects are fully understood.
Things could get ugly between Fehr and the players if he and his staff are pressing on with CBA extension talks without the approval of the PA membership. However, it seems unlikely he’d engage in such discussions without their blessing.
At this point, everything’s in the preliminary stage. Fehr could have authority for exploratory talks with the understanding that official negotiations with the league will need the players’ consent.
As Seravalli observed, mandate or not, the PA and the league appear to be well along with preliminary discussions. On Saturday, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported there’s a meeting planned in Toronto later this week between the two sides.
While the pundits caution that these are merely early discussions, all are striking an optimistic chord. Some are daring to dream of a new collective bargaining agreement without a lengthy labor battle to get it.
If the NHL and NHLPA agree to stage the next World Cup of Hockey in September 2020, it’ll be the best early indication that a new CBA could be hammered out before then. At the very least, it’ll mean neither side will take their early opt-outs this fall, ensuring the current agreement runs its course to September 2022.