As has been widely assumed, the NHL’s offer to the players to allow continued Olympic participation in exchange for an extension on the current collective bargaining agreement has been shut down by the players’ association. The NHLPA officially informed the league today that they are not considering a deal to continue the CBA just because the NHL is holding Olympic participation hostage. While the breakdown of these negotiations does not signal the definite end of the NHL at the Olympics nor an upcoming lockout, it would have been a win-win for hockey fans by eliminating the possibility of either.
The problem with this offer is that the players have issues with the current CBA, namely the uncapped status of escrow costing them money, and also know that they have the free will to attend the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea if they so choose. Superstars like Alexander Ovechkin have said as much, stating that they will play next winter whether the league officially participates or not. Similarly, many, like Brad Marchand, have said that it is their belief that the league has a duty to grow the game of hockey with continued Olympic participation, especially with the next two Games in Asia.
With the players taking a hard stance on playing in the Olympics, the owners felt they could extend a favorable CBA by offering up participation in exchange. It might have worked, but the owners made a mistake: it wasn’t their first demand. The league initially stated that it was concerned about costs, but would approve of the current relationship between the league and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) if the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) funded the players’ participation. When IIHF president Rene Fasel said that the Federation would indeed cover costs, that was expected to be the end of the conversation. Instead, the owner kept pushing for more, this time trying to squeeze the players. It didn’t work. The NHLPA saw right through a transparent attempt at coercion.
Don’t fret though hockey fans. The IOC has given the league until January to make a decision on their participation, and with the pressure of high profile players and a failure to gain any more with hostage tactics, the NHL will likely give in and commit to the 2018 Games. With Beijing, China and potentially Calgary or Salt Lake City after that as the two Winter Olympics following Pyeongchang, continued NHL participation seems likely, but skipping South Korea continues to be an option for the NHL. However, if many players plan to go regardless in 2018, the league may as well stay the course as Olympic participants. The other optimistic view of all of this is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, at least one side of the collective bargaining table is content with the current deal. Another lockout seems unlikely, as the owners are happy with the way things are and the players simply want a hard cap on escrow. Finding a balance in revenue distribution is never an easy task, but that is all that’s holding the NHL and NHLPA back from their easiest labor negotiation of the 21st century.