NHLPA and NHL Labor Negotiation Update

By:  Brandon Mead, Ruling Sports Intern (Email:  bmead1028@gmail.com)

That fateful day in 2004 when Gary Bettman stepped to the podium and announced that he had “no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play” seems all too recent to hockey fans. The National Hockey League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement had expired on September 16th, 2004 and despite efforts by both the League and the Player’s Association, the entire season was cancelled and the Stanley Cup was not raised for the first time since 1919. 

Many fear Bettman may make that same speech this fall when the current NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on September 15th. To avoid such a calamity, the two sides must first sit down at the negotiating table. As of yet, this has not happened.

Bettman claims that “he expects to begin negotiating with the NHLPA in the next few weeks.” This would put the start date to negotiations in the middle of June, giving the two sides a mere three months to come to a resolution. It has been done before and can be done again. Take for example the recent labor disputes of both the NBA and the NFL. Reports coming out months before the respective CBA’s were set to expire indicated that it would take a miracle to bridge the gap between the two sides.  In the end, the NFL put on a full and successful season and the NBA had to cut less than 20 games off its normal schedule.

As hockey fans, we must hope similar last minute negotiations will salvage the NHL season. The biggest issues to emerge are rather straightforward.

1.     Contract Terms – Teams are creative in how they structure their contracts under the current CBA. A player’s average salary over the life of his current contract is what counts against the team’s salary cap while employing the player. This means that teams can get creative, as they did with Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract in New Jersey, and sign a player for many years past when he will be playing hockey and pay him the league minimum for those last few years. This loophole in the current rules allows teams to pay high profile players “average salaries.” Closing this loophole will allow the hard salary cap to be much more effective.

2.     Olympic Participation – For those of us that watched the Olympic hockey in Vancouver, it was a magical two weeks that we all hope to see again in Socchi, Russia. However, the Olympics occur in the middle of the NHL season and put a three week halt to games. In addition, players get hurt and are unable to play for the teams that allow them to go play for their countries. The players appear eager to face off again in Russia, but may have to sacrifice at the bargaining table to get there.

3.     Officiating – This year the NHL named former player Brendan Shanahan as its head disciplinarian. He is singlehandedly in charge of handing out suspensions to players for illegal hits. Arguments can easily be made for or against most of his decisions. However, the players have issue with consistency. Not only the consistency of Shanahan’s punishments, but the consistency of the on-ice officiating. It became quite clear during the first round of the playoffs, when all the media was talking about was the goons that stopped fighting long enough to play a hockey game, that officiating standards had seriously deteriorated. Players are concerned for their safety and the league is concerned about maintaining the integrity of the game. Finding a happy middle ground between the two will be crucial for a new CBA.

4.     Revenue Splitting – League revenue hovers around $3.1 Billion a year and the players currently take home 57% of that pie. That percentage was similar in both the NBA and the NFL until the recent negotiation in which the owners brought those numbers down significantly. The owners will attempt to use those negotiations as templates for success in the NHL. However, players understand the lucrative ten year contract the NHL just signed with NBC and will want to make sure they are compensated for a great increase in revenues.

These are obviously just a few issues that will emerge during negotiations this summer, but these will have some of the greatest impact on whether or not we can spend our winter watching the “Coolest Game on Earth.” Stay tuned for more updates.

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