The NHL's track record with negotiating contracts with its players without locking them out over the past decade has been horrendous. Thankfully, that hasn't been the case with its on-ice officials. There hasn't been a work stoppage with referees and linesemen since Doughnut-gate with Don Koharski in 1988 and there will not be one this season.
When the league opens the season with four games tonight, it will do so with labor harmony with its on-ice officials. Not that there was ever any doubt. For the past couple of months the league has been negotiating with its officials for a new deal and the talks were cordial and in good faith on both sides. And with the league and NHL Officials' Association on the verge of signing a five-year deal, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, it is on the cusp of being official.
"It's within a dot," said a source with knowledge of the negotiations. "There might be one small thing here or there, but it's really details. The basis for a deal has been settled and they're very, very close. I think both sides want to make sure all the details are done before they make anything public."
"We are very far down the road in our negotiations for a new agreement," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to thn.com. "I hope and expect that we will have a tentative agreement on all material points in the very near future. That agreement will still be subject to the approval of both respective constituencies."
(NHLOA president Dan O'Halloran could not be reached for comment.)
Even if it is not done in time for tonight, there was never any thought the officials would withhold their services for the regular season. All of them showed up for training camp and worked the pre-season games, largely because most of the issues had been settled by then.
In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise if a new deal with the NHLOA were announced before the season begins tonight. But it might be difficult to do that, considering the deal still has to be finalized and would have to be ratified by a vote on both sides. And it's good news that it is a five-year deal, since the norm prior to this deal has been four years. The 42 referees and 37 linesmen who make up the association are reportedly happy with the terms of the deal and there's no reason to believe anything would hold it up.
"There has never been any talk of (a work stoppage)," the source said. "They had a really good camp and there was absolutely no tension there. Things have been really professional on both sides."
Which, in the end, is great news for hockey fans. Despite the abuse they take from all corners for calls or lack of them, there is no doubt the officials the NHL employs are the best in the world.
And if the NHL needed to learn from a cautionary tale, it was provided in 2012 when the National Football League locked out its officials for three games because it couldn't come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockout lasted through Week 3 of the season and coincided with a host of blown and controversial calls by replacement officials. One had to be pulled off the field before a game because his Facebook page revealed he as a fan of the New Orleans Saints. These guys were not Division I officials. Rather they were from high schools, the Arena Football League and even the Lingerie Football League.
The tipping point came in a Monday night game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks where a blown pass interference call on the last play of the game that robbed the Packers of a victory. Commissioner Roger Goodell later said that play helped push the parties to an agreement. And Goodell later wrote an open letter to NFL fans saying, "you deserve better."
It was a major embarrassment for the NFL, one the NHL was eager not to repeat.