Hockey Work Stoppage—Storm Clouds Forming?


Photo: Gazeta.ru

Enough already. Can’t we just continue to bask in the afterglow of this spring and early summer? It is still like a dream. Must you really end this beautiful dream?” –Jim McCarthy, Author. 

This is the question I asked myself as I sat down to compose this piece. I concluded that the first-time Stanley Cup is ours. No one, no way, no time, can this ever be taken from us. So I turned my attention to an unwanted and uncertain future—will the joy we take from all things Capitals eventually be taken from us by player-management issues? There have been four different work stoppages in the recent past. Will there be a fifth? I use the standard Q&A method to examine what may be in store for us.

Q.1​ What is the status of the current CBA?

A.1​ The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) expires on September 15, 2022, after the 2021-2022 hockey season. It was signed in January, 2013.

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Q.2​ That seems far down the road. Why be concerned now?

A.2​ Because the current CBA gives either side the unilateral right to opt out early. The NHL can take the exit ramp on September 1, 2019. The NHLPA can opt out of the CBA on September 19, 2019. Should either side exercise its opt-out rights, the CBA will expire on September 15, 2020—before the official start of the 2020-2021 season.

Unless the two sides make peace first, it means that NHL hockey will likely be with us for only two more seasons (2018-2019 and 2019-2020) before we headlong confront a brick wall. These two seasons are coming at us like a speeding train.

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Q.3​ But is it possible that the two sides could avert a train wreck?

A.3​ Yes, possibly, but unlikely. Even if a Deus ex machina were to intervene and both sides magically declined to opt out early, it would only delay the inevitable until after the 2021-22 season.

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Q.4​ Has the NHL and NHLPA ever before come to their collective senses, stepped back from the cliff’s edge, and avoided any major labor actions?

A.4​ No. Never. The parties have engaged in four always-contentious labor actions in the history (one player strike, 3 owner lockouts):

1992 NHL strike, which postponed 30 games of the 1991–92 season.

1994–95 NHL lockout, which cancelled many of the games of the 1994–95 season and shortened the regular season to 48 games per team with no inter-conference games.

2004–05 NHL lockout, which cancelled all of the games of the 2004–05 season.

2012–13 NHL lockout, which cancelled many of the games of the 2012–13 season and shortened the regular season to 48 games per team with no inter-conference games.

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Q.5What issues, controversies, and disputes are now or will be in play?

A.5​ Here is a laundry list. I am sure I missed some. It’s early and neither side has yet to unleash its most deadly volleys. Cards are in many ways being held closely to the vests. You make the call as to whether or not the item is likely to be favored by ownership and opposed by the players; or opposed by ownership and favored by players.

Item: Change in the Equilibrium and Balance of Power. Here are some issues according to whose ox is being gored: change 50-50 revenue split (some want it lowered, others raised); outyear salary cap reductions or increases; changes up or down to the players’ escrow accounts; increasing or decreasing the range of choices for pending free agents; limiting or expanding the number of buyouts and arbitration walkaways; and loosening or tightening future expansion draft rules to make it harder or easier for new teams to succeed or powerful teams to remain intact.

Item: Get It While You Can. Black clouds and Red Flag warnings pointing to a lockout have already materialized, mainly through players turning game checks into bonuses. Many players who inked new contracts this summer are receiving a portion, or, in some cases, the majority, of their 2020-21 salary in the form of a signing bonus. These arrangements are no doubt being put in place as a hedge against a work stoppage. For example, as much as $86 million of Connor McDavid’s historic $100 million contract extension with the Edmonton Oilers this offseason is expected to come in the form of signing bonuses, as previously reported by Sportsnet. Other examples widely recounted include Carey Price’s eight-year, $84 million deal reportedly to be paid in the form of annual player bonuses. The same goes for Patrick Marleau, whose three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Maple Leafs will reportedly pay $14.5 million of which in annual bonuses. Derek Stepan also negotiated for 2020-21, the last year of his deal with the Coyotes, to pay $3 million of his $5 million salary as a bonus.

Item: Escrow Clawback from Players Salaries. At present each NHL player has a percentage of his salary deducted from his paycheck. The money is put aside until the season’s end. The league tallies up the season’s hockey-related revenues. It then ensures that the players and owners reach a precise 50-50 balance split between players and the teams. Afterwards, the league “trues up” and players may or may not receive a refund of all or part of the escrow.

Item: No Trade and No-Movement Provisions in Players’ Contracts. These are tricky. The interests of large market teams versus small market teams may diverge. Superstars and role players may see things differently. Veterans and relative new-comers’ views may differ.

Item: Length of Standard Player Contracts. Now limited to a term of seven years, there are competing constituencies who either favor or oppose tinkering with the length of the contract. [Teams are currently permitted to sign their own players for eight years].

Item: Hard Feelings Remain after the Olympic Freeze Out. To this day, many of the league’s superstars remain soured by what they believe was the NHL’s  unilateral decision to exclude players participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. It may be impossible to quantify the monetary costs resulting from this exclusion. But there is little doubt that it contributes to an underlying tone affecting future negotiations.

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Q.6​ You are generally an optimist. Why is an early or successful settlement unlikely?

A.6​ Ugh. Try for starters: infighting between billionaires and millionaires. Bloated egos. Machismo. A focus on the almighty dollar. Myopia. Greed. Zero-sum game mentalities (your win is my loss). Distorted views of life in the real world. An aura of entitlement. Lack of appreciation for the fans. Contradictor, yet simultaneously held beliefs in the inevitability of continued prosperity versus “I better get mine while I have the chance.” The belief on either side in their exclusive righteousness of their respective causes only serves to harden each other’s resolve and dilute the appetite for measured compromise. When aggregated, there is spawned a witch’s brew of melancholy and despair.

Q.7.What about the Washington Capitals—how are they affected?

A.7 I love the Capitals. I would like to think that the Capitals are somehow different. That they want a back-to-back, and then a three-peat. But time is not their friend. An extended work stoppage risksdiluting the chemistry enthusiasm, optimism, and their level of play. I wish I could say otherwise, but hockey, at its core, is a business. So draw your own conclusion.

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Q.8​ Who will be to blame for a work stoppage?  Who wins?

A.8 A pox on both of their houses. Nobody wins.

That said, there are two other factors worth noting. The Seattle Totems(?) expansion club is poised to offer up an entry fee of $650 million in time for the 2020-21 season—to be shared equally among the 31 existing teams. Do the math. How likely is it that owners would do something to kill that golden goose?

On the other hand, most players seem to believe they have no other weapon at their disposal than forcing a work stoppage. Under this premise, players are aiming at the owners wallets—their only known vulnerability. But even this strategy can be countered by the knowledge by both parties that no matter what happens and for how long—the owners will once again emerge from the carnage with satisfied and smug smiles.

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Q.Who loses?

A.9The fan. Surprise. Surprise.

 

By: Jim McCarthy

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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