The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement is not a topic that most hockey fans want to hear much about, as in its recent history it has become synonymous with lockouts and missed games (and seasons). Yet, it isn’t ever going away and details are already emerging about when the next round of negotiations could begin. The current CBA technically does not expire until September 15th after the 2021-22 season and can even be extended on a yearly basis after that point. However, both the league and the players’ association can opt out ahead of the 2020-21 season with notice given in September of 2019. That date is less than a year out, making discussions of the current state of NHL labor relations prevalent now even if the CBA ends up intact for many years still to come. Currently, the league is not planning to use their option in September, according to Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman. This is supported by claims that commissioner Gary Bettman has encouraged the NHLPA to figure out their stance as soon as possible. If the league is to hold an off-season World Cup tournament in 2020, as they did in 2016, they do not want to do so ahead of a season that could potentially be held up by a player strike. While the players have until September to make a decision on opting out of the current CBA ahead of the 2020-21 season, Friedman speculates that the league will need to know their intentions by the All-Star break this year or thereabouts if they are to begin planning the next World Cup. As Friedman notes, the international stage is very important to the players and with the NHL currently looking unlikely to attend the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China, the players may not want to risk their only other international experience, the World Cup. Will it be enough motivation to keep the CBA intact a while longer? We should know that answer before the end of the current season.
- When CBA talks do finally re-open, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos states his belief that both sides are determined to avoid a work stoppage this time around. Although they will have to get over their recent tumultuous negotiating history, which has cost owners, players, and fans alike a season and a half since the turn of the century, as well as sort through some serious issues, the fact that both sides feel a shutdown would be a worst case scenario this time around is a positive note for everyone with a stake in the game.
- Despite recent remarks that were inferred as signaling a coming end to his career, NHLPA Director Donald Fehr is not going anywhere, per Friedman. Fehr indicated that he would only be around for one or two more years, but walked back those comments by telling Friedman that he will stay on through the next CBA negotiation, whenever that is. The 70-year-old executive is well-respected if not feared for his hardball tactics, but has been optimistic about the next round of negotiations when approached about the topic recently. Fehr faces the tough choice of whether to opt out in 2020 (and retire sooner) or keep the peace for a couple more years instead.
- One CBA topic gaining support is a change to playoff structure, reports Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. However, it likely is not what many would consider to be the most pressing change. Johnston says that there is a growing movement among owners in favor of adding more teams to the playoff format. The NHL has operated with more than half of its teams making the postseason for many years now, but once Seattle joins the league as the 32nd member, that 16-team structure will now have a balance of exactly half the teams qualifying. Johnston believes that owners are in favor of a play-in structure, similar to the one recently adopted by Major League Baseball, that would hypothetically include two or four more teams to the postseason through do-or-die play-in games. Interestingly, this movement may never reach the bargaining table. Johnston notes that while some owners are in favor of this move, others, and most importantly Bettman, are happy with the current structure and are not seeking to change anything in the near future.
- Changes to the playing schedule, particularly game times, could also be an intriguing CBA topic. Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press writes that many foreign-born NHL players are in favor of more frequent matinee games. Speaking with the Washington Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller and the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, Whyno found that many NHL imports feel that earlier games would be far more convenient for foreign fans and could help to grow the game overseas. While the league has proven to be very invested in expanding the game in Europe and beyond, afternoon games on weekdays are an impossibility, while afternoon games on weekends in the first half of the season would pit the NHL against NFL and NCAA football far more often. The players may be fine with losing domestic television ratings in exchange for increased visibility overseas, but the league likely will not be. In need of a new TV deal in 2021, the NHL is unlikely to hurt the market value of their TV rights by expressing an interest in more frequently taking on football, the most popular sport in the United States.
- For his part, Bobby Orr thinks that another work stoppage is likely. Orr told The Canadian Press that he would be “surprised” if there isn’t a lockout or strike before the next CBA is agreed upon, calling it a “tough” situation. “I think there are concerns on both sides… I hope there isn’t… I hope I’m wrong. We don’t need another lockout”, Orr said. Orr is not only one of the game’s greatest legends, but through his agency, The Orr Hockey Group, gleams plenty of information about the state of the league. If Orr says that it’s going to be tough, he’s probably right. The only hope is that termination can be put off a while longer and issues can be worked out in the meantime.