As the NHL heads into one of its most important and financially reckless weeks – that would be free agency, of course – the NHLPA held its annual charity golf tournament in the Toronto suburbs where, as per usual, union executive director Donald Fehr held court with the press.
While the current climate is fairly chill between the league and the union, it’s fair to surmise that soon the labor landscape will be heating up. In September, both sides have the option of opting out of the current CBA, set to expire after the 2021-22 season. If either the owners or players decide to opt out, the CBA would end after the 2019-20 campaign instead.
One issue that has irked players is escrow and recently, the salary cap for 2019-20 was set at $81.5 million, lower than what had been predicted during the season by commissioner Gary Bettman. Part of the reason was that players decided not to use much of the inflator they are entitled to: when the cap goes up, more of the players’ money tends to go into escrow.
“Hopefully there will be enough fluidity in the system and it will work well,” Fehr said. “But setting the cap on an ongoing basis is a difficult proposition, especially in an era with high escrow. Obviously when we get into significant bargaining with the NHL, that will be one of the issues that comes up, because it is intimately related to the escrow issue.”
For many fans (not to mention the players themselves), one fix would be to ditch the salary cap altogether. Major League Baseball doesn’t have one and that’s whose players Fehr worked for before he joined the NHLPA.
“I lived without a cap for a long, long time,” he said. “And in a perfect world, that is what you would likely see. Obviously that is not something the NHL owners have indicated an interest in and so you have to work through. You have to bargain in good faith.”
Another hot-button topic right now is offer sheets, specifically the lack thereof. Restricted free agents such as Brayden Point, Patrik Laine and Mitch Marner seem too tantalizing not to trawl for if you’re a rival team, but the reality is that GMs don’t seem to have the stomach for the consequences. And Fehr believes that is structurally built into the CBA.
“The owners have a desire to limit negotiating every way they can because they believe, accurately, that it holds salaries down,” he said. “So what you have is a series of provisions built into the agreement – mostly compensation and the right of first refusal – that effectively inhibit it.”
While Bettman and Fehr have already gone toe-to-toe in a lockout once (2012-13), it doesn’t seem to be personal for Fehr. In fact, there seems to be an acknowledgement of how similar the two men are: the Ken and Ryu of Street Fighter 2, if you will.
“The relationship on a day-by-day basis is professional,” Fehr said. “I’ve often said this as a bit of a joke, but it’s true: if you took any two lawyers – much less people who have been practising law as long as Gary and I have – and said ‘Oh by the way, you’re going to represent the owners now, Don, and Gary you’re going to represent the players.’ It turns out the positions you take are not driven by your own feelings, they’re driven by the interests of your constituents.”
And the two sides have worked together successfully since that most recent lockout. While missing the Olympics was a blow for fans and players, the idea of best-on-best international hockey is still very much on the radar and Fehr is hopeful that another World Cup of Hockey can be played, perhaps in September of 2021. If that doesn’t happen, the 2022 Olympics in Beijing would be the next possibility. And given how important China is to the NHL and hockey’s growth right now, it’s hard to see that one falling through.
As for one side opting out of the current CBA in September?
“Ask me around August 15th, I suspect I’ll have a better idea,” Fehr said. “Right now it’s too soon.”