Gary Bettman’s War and Peace
Putting Gary Bettman in charge of hockey labor peace is like putting a cat in charge of rodent safety. There are just some things that are inherently, instinctually part of an individual’s comportment, and there’s nothing they can do to suppress the urges.
For Bettman, it’s labor stoppages. The only person who doesn’t seem to realize this is Gary Bettman. “I think labor peace is important,” he recently told Sports Business Journal’s brand engagement and content summit.
OK, great. Let’s have more of it.
Here’s where the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association stand: The current collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2021-22 season. The NHL can opt out of it on Sept. 1 of this year. If it chooses not to, then the NHLPA has the option to do the same. If either of them do so, then the CBA ends in September 2020.
“We’ve engaged in a number of discussions and meetings with the players’ association. They’re ongoing. Nothing much to update other than the fact that we expect to continue to have discussions over the summer,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
“Everybody has their own thoughts. It depends on what happens. We’ve got a board meeting in a couple of weeks. Then we’ll have player meetings all summer long. If we need another board meeting the end of August, first month of September, we will,” said Don Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director.
So everyone’s on pins and needles, as per usual. Taylor Hall told ESPN this season that he’s nervous. “Well, I was pretty confident there wouldn’t be one last time and, sure enough, we didn’t play until January,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “So it’s not really in our hands. The league has been known to do that quite a bit in the last three opportunities they had, so it’s unfortunate. So I’d say, I’m not confident at all.”
In an odd twist, you know who is confident there might not be a work stoppage?
“In my 26-plus years, this has been the most constructive time. The dialogue has been professional. We seem to understand each other better than ever,” Bettman told the conference. “If the union thinks that things are good, maybe that’ll be encouraging to both sides to maintain labor peace for as long as possible.”
This, in the end, is the question: Are the NHL’s salad days leafy enough that the players and owners don’t want to do this again?
Here are the cases for labor peace and all-out war.
The case for peace
Things are good right now in the NHL. The quality of play is better than it’s been in recent memory, especially when it comes to offense. The average of 3.01 goals per game was the second highest since 1996.
Bettman’s artificial parity is paying off. Attendance, for the most part, is strong. Ratings, for the most part, are good. The league is squeezing revenue streams for all they can produce, with more to come. The projected cap ceiling for 2019-20 is $83 million. League revenue has soared to $4.85 billion. Player salaries continue to grow, but apparently not to the point where owners feel the need to pound the negotiating table and demand that they’re rolled back.
The reason these talks have started in earnest is because the owners aren’t looking to drop an anvil on the players this time. Oh, sure, they want to win the negotiation, grab more of the pie than they already have. But there isn’t the same obsession with changing the system there has been in previous Bettman-led CBA talks.
“The thing that stands out to me the most is we’re able to have these discussions with a lack of tension,” said Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA’s special assistant to the executive director. “When you start bargaining meetings like we did in 2012 … You could cut the tension with a knife in those first couple meetings, and in most meetings. And we’re able to have these discussions now without that tension, without walls being built up, and it’s been very positive so far.”
Again, things are good. Really good for the owners. Pretty good for the players. But good enough?
The case for war
There are two basic issues for the players in this CBA: Getting back to the Olympics, and figuring out a solution to escrow, the bane of their professional existence.
On the Olympics, it’s an interesting battle. The NHL slowly pivoted from making this an “Us against the IOC” situation to making it a CBA bargaining chip, but lingering in the background is the fact that the owners truly don’t want to do this again if the IOC doesn’t sweeten the pot by easing marketing and revenue generating rules.
“Why don’t you give us the same rights as the top sponsor?” Bettman asked. “We get to go as an invited guest, with no ability to advertise that we’re there?”
Everyone expects the NHL will go back to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing because of how much groundwork they’re laying in that market. The players probably know this, too, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’re willing to concede anything to get there.
Escrow is another story. This is going to be a fight.
In the current CBA, players and owners receive a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues. But a percentage of a player’s salary is withheld every season to cover potential shortfalls. After the season, total revenue is calculated, and players may be refunded a portion of the escrow. “We’re paying so much on our checks every two weeks, it’s like astronomical,” said Hall.
“Obviously it’s an irritant. From time to time it can be big one. The question is how do you fix it,” said Fehr. “We can fix escrow by cutting salaries. The players aren’t interested in doing that. So it has to become something you address in a way that makes sense for the players and addresses their concerns.”
What makes sense? “If you change some of the preliminary inputs, you change the outputs,” said Fehr.
Therein lies the fight. It’s not over the existence of escrow, which is just going to be a necessary evil under a capped league. (And the players have neither the desire nor the patience for the biggest fight, which would be abolition of the salary cap.) It’s over how escrow can be eased, which either means a recalculation of hockey-related revenue or, as the New York Post noted, the way long-term injured reserve players count against the cap:
“Under the current onerous system, players bear the cost and subsidize the league when other players go on LTI. If a $6 million player goes on LTI, his team can exceed the cap by $6 million. That extra $6 million is included in total payroll and therefore increases escrow under the 50-50 agreement. If the league eliminates additional payroll dedicated to LTI as part of the mix, that would reduce escrow. It would also slightly tilt the 50-50, so the NHL obviously would need something tangible in return — perhaps a redefinition of Hockey-Related Revenue that would benefit the teams.”
Will there be war or peace?
I’m a players guy. Part of that is growing up in a union house. Part of that is seeing what happens to players after their days are done in the NHL, and wanting them to maximize their profits. I’d like nothing more than to see them plant their flag on the battlefield and fight for the abolition of the salary cap and the end of false parity in the league. But we all know that’s not going to happen.
What is going to happen: The owners will give the players their version of a new CBA. The players will undoubtedly balk at ratifying it. And then it’s a staring contest as training camps and the season draws near, where we either get a deal or a lockout.
Here’s hoping it’s a deal. Yes, escrow sucks, and one hopes there’s a good-faith effort to ease that burden on the players. But the NHL should take its cue from the NBA, which surprised everyone with a fairly swift and painless collective bargaining agreement. As commissioner Adam Silver said, “The fortunes of the league, the fact that there is more money to distribute among our players and teams, has created an atmosphere that makes it more conducive to continue a deal that looks a lot like the current deal. I think there is a sense across the table that we have a system that we both fought hard for in the last round of collective bargaining that for the most part is working pretty well.”
The NHL’s system, imperfect as it is, would appear to be working the same way. So for the first time in over 25 years, maybe it’s time for a bloodless agreement and labor peace. If, in fact, that’s something Gary Bettman is capable of achieving.
BRB, going to hit the gym
As you might have heard, the Boston Bruins brought in some additional food items to the Stanley Cup Final, in an effort to … I don’t know, fatten us up enough to then eat us?
Here’s the Doughnut Burger, “a double cheeseburger sandwiched between two glazed doughnuts with bacon, fried jalapeños and crispy onions.”
You may find it both unsurprising and disgusting that I’ve actually had a doughnut burger before, back when a minor league baseball team debuted a Krispy Kreme Burger some years back. Not much has changed here: The salty grease of the meat partners well with the sweetness of the doughnut, and the onion straws bring some texture. But two bites of this thing and you’ll be feeling like a cement truck just dumped its payload into your stomach.
Meanwhile there was also this monstrosity:
This is the bacon wrapped hot dog covered in steak and cheese and it’s a bit of a mess to eat. The bacon donut burger, on the other hand … ������ pic.twitter.com/FrV9YWqUgm – Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 26, 2019
Yes, it’s the “Cheese & Steak Hot Dog,” which is (spoiler warning) a “footlong, bacon-wrapped hot dog, topped with steak and cheese.” It’s an absolute mess to eat. You know what a hot dog wrapped in bacon doesn’t need? Help.
Puck tracking update
Another point of conversation in Bettman’s recent State of the NHL address was puck and player tracking, on which he remains bullish about a debut next season. As we’ve covered previously in this space, the NHL is using a combination of sensors on players and the puck along with an optical tracking system. While the technology of the former has been touted as revolutionary, the technology of the latter was previously seen as inefficient.
Is the NHL at all concerned about this?
“No. We’ve always taken the approach that we’ll do both, and figure out which one we like better and which one works best for us. I think having the optical is helpful in determining how we ultimately want to do this,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “I don’t think [optical] was ever rejected I think there was a decision at one point that we wanted to do chip-based technology only, and that was changed for a variety of reasons. I think they were good reasons. We’re actually pleased we have both technologies for that.”
I still feel the NHL’s initial pitch on player and puck-tracking was the chip-based, antenna system, with optical added later when they realized there were holes in the tracking. I’m still not sold on the hybrid concept, but I sure do hope it works.
The Week in Gritty
The Triangle Tavern in Philadelphia has a mural of the Philadelphia Flyers‘ orange nightmare fuel on it. Like a giant furry moth to a flame, it was also discovered by Gritty himself:
A couple of questions:
1. Is Gritty showing us he loves and appreciates this artwork, or does Gritty think this is actually another Gritty, much like a parrot will believe there’s a second parrot in its cage if you put a tiny mirror next to it?
2. No, actually, that’s our only question.
From a St. Louis Blues fan who is canceling their former captain:
A well-executed Traitor Jersey, as David Backes‘ name and number are repurposed, and a Blues fan saves some money in creating a new sweater. One problem: That jersey was put out of circulation in the season before Ivan Barbashev‘s rookie debut. So, in the end, it’s a Jersey Foul.
This is fun: Ranking all the jersey matchups through the entire playoffs, as well as making a visual brand-based prediction for the Finals.
Nice piece here on Canadian hockey announcer Harnarayan Singh.
Whatever WalletHub is, it believes that Boston is the best hockey city in the U.S. while Minneapolis is ranked behind South Bend and Schenectady. So, who’s to say, really?
The 10 blockbuster trade candidates this summer in the NHL.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Catching up with Hayley Wickenheiser about the future of women’s hockey.