Eight years ago, at the conclusion of the last collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and then NHLPA director Bob Goodenow were set in their respective positions and firing salvos at each other through the media. Today, Bettman and new NHLPA director Donald Fehr are approaching the end of another CBA in a very different matter: by putting negotiations off.
The current CBA is at its end. The 2011-12 season was played under the agreement negotiated in 2005, after the NHLPA exercised its right to extend the agreement for one additional season. They don’t have that option this year, and so both parties must come to an agreement before September of 2012 or risk the cancellation/postponement of the 2012-13 NHL season.
At this time in 2004, Bettman was denying that the NHL had proposed a hard cap, Bob Goodenow was calling that “ludicrous,” and Bettman was “optimistic” because in his words “the lines of communication are open” and “when the time is right this can move quickly.” Of course, at that point the NHLPA was questioning the results of an NHL-commissioned audit, offering a 5% pay cut as its primary concession, and standing fast against a hard salary cap. We saw how that turned out.
The tone is different today. It’s mostly non-confrontational – though of course the NHLPA’s rejection of the NHL’s realignment plan hints that ‘warm and fuzzy’ probably won’t be the tone throughout the negotiations. Unlike in 2004, where negotiations were underway and both sides were miles apart, negotiations haven’t even started. The one thing that remains undiminished, however, is Gary Bettman’s ability to sound optimistic about the process:
"We’re ready and we have been ready, but the union has had some work to do. We’re being patient. I’m not concerned about the time frame."
Despite Bettman’s lack of concern, there are obvious issues that will need to be dealt with. I was halfway through putting a list together when I came across David Shoalts’ article from earlier this week identifying some key issues. I encourage anyone interested to give it a read, but here are a few in point form:
- Revenue: Players currently get 57% of NHL revenues; some owners want to push that number below 50%, more in line with the recent NBA deal.
- Escrow: Players see big chunks of their current contracts held in escrow until such time as league revenues are fully calculated at the end of the season. Typically they get that money back, but it’s not a widely-loved system.
- Salary Floor: Some teams are struggling to keep up with the salary cap floor and want to see it reduced.
- Contracts: Some owners would like to see term limits; some players want to see over-35 restrictions reduced.
- Player safety: Because if we can’t work concussions into the discussion, we clearly aren’t talking hockey
- Realignment: The NHLPA’s rejection of the league’s plan puts this squarely on the table.
- Olympics: Owners have always been lukewarm to Olympic participation, while players typically push for it.
Beyond the issues that Shoalts highlighted, we could probably name a few others. A limited contract amnesty has been suggested before, and the NHLPA would undoubtedly have opinions on that. The current buyout process, one that makes it very difficult for teams to get out from under the weight of their own stupid contracts, might be scrutinized. One wonders whether guaranteed contracts are a target for some owners. The exposure of players who start the season outside the NHL to waivers has cost NHL teams guys they’ve signed – that might be a topic for discussion too.
Revenue is obviously the major issue on the board. But there are a host of other issues that will need to be worked through, and right now we don’t really know where the league or the union stand. More importantly, the two parties may not know where the other stands – since they aren’t talking right now.
It’s good that we haven’t seen fireworks between the two sides. But the fact that negotiations haven’t started yet is a little troubling.