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.