Don't expect players to accept NHL's Olympic olive branch

Do the players want to play in the Olympics? Absolutely. Are they willing to give up three years of CBA control to do it? Not a chance.
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When asked about a report that the NHL has offered the players the chance to play in the 2018 Olympics in return for extending the collective bargaining agreement, NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr could not have been more vague or non-committal in the words he chose.

“There have been some suggestions which could be construed that that discussion would be worth having,” Fehr told reporters today in New York City in a sentence that is believed to have established a modern-day record for ambiguity.

There’s a reason for that. It seems this proposal has come out of left field. And if conversations your trusty correspondent had with player agents is any indication, that’s exactly where it will stay. The general feeling is that there is no way the players are going to give up three years of control over CBA negotiations in return for the chance to play in an Olympic tournament about which, quite frankly, they’re rather ambivalent.

Do the players want to play in the Olympics? Absolutely. Are they willing to make a major concession to go South Korea to do it? Almost no chance of that happening. But the NHL will try to do this, for a number of reasons. The first is that this is a negotiation, so why not try to extract the most out of it possible? After all, the league has already apparently had its errand boy Rene Fasel raise the money to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodations. If the league can also parlay this annoying Olympic thing into three more years on a CBA that it quite likes, all the better.

One agent suggested a lot of this has to do with the negotiations between the National Basketball Association and its players. NHL and NBA negotiations have pretty much paralleled each other over the years, but there is a sense that an NBA contract extension, which could be completed in the next couple of weeks, will be more advantageous to the players than the current one. Basketball Related Income (BRI), which is roundball’s version of Hockey Related Revenue (HRR) is expected to be expanded to be less restrictive in favor of the players. So even though the players will still receive between 49 and 51 percent of overall revenues, it’s believed the pie they’ll be splitting with the owners will be much bigger.

“I guess they figure if they can do this and net enough fish with the Olympics, they might be able to pull it off,” one agent said. “Perhaps the league thinks the players will be foolish enough to be willing to lock themselves into a CBA that limits them so they can go to the Olympics. It’s a red herring as far as I’m concerned.”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. One side of the argument suggests that the players should jump at the chance to extend the CBA for three more years because it puts off by three years the amount of time in which they can once again be locked out. Remember, it is the owners who have locked out the players the past three labor disruptions and not only have they been able to make financial gains that give them cost certainty, the business appears to be immune to backlash because of a lockout.

But there is another school of thought that this CBA in particular is not a good one for the players at all. “Gary (commissioner Bettman) looks at this CBA and he loves it,” another agent said. “He loves everything about it. It’s the players who aren’t happy about the CBA, not the owners.”

The current agreement runs until after the 2021-22 season, but either side has the option to end it two years before that. If the players were to take the league’s offer, it would ensure labor peace until 2025. But that’s not likely to happen. And that’s because the players absolutely abhor the escrow system. For example, the blended escrow for last season was 17 percent and the players don’t know how much, if any, they’ll be getting back because the league and NHLPA are still working through some outstanding HRR issues. The escrow for the first quarter of this season is 15 percent. In 2014-15, the players paid 15 percent and received two percent back.

Some on the players’ side are still convinced the league will continue to go to the Olympics, even without this agreement, so there would be little motivation for them to acquiesce. “The attitude of a lot of players is, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ ” said a source close to the NHLPA. “Are they going to cap escrow? I can’t imagine this is going to get any kind of traction with the players. They could still extend the CBA and make some changes to it, but if they do this, there are no changes for another 10 years.”


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