Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside debate what the NHL’s offer to extend the collective bargaining agreement by three years in exchange for Olympics participation really means.
LEBRUN: Scotty, never a dull moment, eh? NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr confirmed to reporters in New York on Wednesday, after a meeting with the International Ice Hockey Federation, that the NHL has offered to sign off on Winter Olympic participation for 2018 in South Korea in exchange for extending the collective bargaining agreement three years.
As much as I would personally love to see the CBA extended three years in order to delay the next labor battle as long as possible, I can’t imagine why the players would be enticed by this offer.
They hate escrow that much. I don’t use the word “hate” very often because I don’t like it. But it’s the only word that describes how the players feel about escrow. I find it hard to believe they would give up the chance to reopen the CBA in 2020 and not try to negotiate a cap on escrow.
Especially when you consider that what appeared to be the biggest hurdle in going to South Korea now appears to be potentially solved. IIHF president Rene Fasel said that he’s come up with money from other sources to cover the players’ travel and contract insurance for the Olympics, money that the International Olympic Committee says it will no longer cover.
My point is, if you’re a player, don’t you think it appears that you’re going to South Korea anyway? So why give away three years of the CBA?
Unless, of course, the owners next month at the board of governors meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, vote down Olympic participation. I’m not saying they will, but it’s not inconceivable.
BURNSIDE: Pretty cagey move by the league to try to leverage a return to the Olympics into extending the CBA without really having to do any sort of heavy lifting — unless you count actually going to South Korea as heavy lifting, which I suppose many owners feel is the case. Of course, it’s leverage only if the owners are willing to play the trump card of refusing to go to South Korea, even though the IIHF is willing to cough up the money to cover the travel/insurance costs unless the players are willing to extend the CBA.
Oh boy, now that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
I think the league is crazy if they draw that line in the sand, because as you point out, the players’ feeling about escrow is at least as strong as their feeling about playing in the Olympics, maybe more so. I think the league needs to be at the Olympics, and that feeling is even stronger, having been at the World Cup of Hockey. Loved much of that tournament, but it’s not the Olympics and never will be. And I think the league has to commit to the Olympics wholeheartedly or get out for good. This notion of taking off the 2018 Olympics and then going to China four years later because it’s more convenient and more lucrative for them is disgraceful, in my view. If all the NHL is interested in is the bottom line on potential revenue as opposed to the bigger-picture growth of the game globally, then pull the plug on the Olympics right now and let’s move on.
But here’s hoping that’s not the path the league takes. How do you see this playing out?
LEBRUN: The players want to go, and some, like Alex Ovechkin, have said they will go to the 2018 Games regardless of whether the NHL sanctions it. Ovechkin told me that on the eve of the World Cup in Toronto and was quite clear about it.
I’m not sure how many star players would be willing to face suspensions for heading over to South Korea without the NHL’s blessing, but it’s definitely worth noting.
When I asked Connor McDavid during the World Cup about Olympic participation, the young phenom said he absolutely is dreaming of playing for Team Canada in the Olympics, but was also clear that he would do so only within the framework of the NHL and NHLPA being on board.
Clearly the game of chicken here is that the NHL knows the players want to go to South Korea, so it is looking to see how much it can squeeze that for leverage. Fehr and NHLPA executives have already started to canvass players about the league’s offer to extend the CBA in return for Olympic participation. I just don’t see a majority of players feeling any love for this offer. This is an interesting issue that’s not just about players and owners. There are many coaches and GMs who believe the NHL should stay in the Olympics but are obviously careful how they voice that publicly. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock isn’t shy about it. He reiterated a few times during the World Cup how important he feels the Olympics are. I wonder how impactful those feelings from people of his ilk will be in this process.
BURNSIDE: So we wait to see just how far the NHL wants to push this. My sense is the NHL isn’t all that keen on having the IIHF pony up the money to keep the NHL in the Olympic tournament. Personally, I find it more than a bit galling that the IOC won’t reach into its deep pockets to keep the best players on the planet in the fold. And I think it’s equally shameful that the IOC would let the IIHF use monies that might otherwise go to support the game in dozens of hockey-playing nations around the world to pay the freight to keep the NHL in a tournament that ultimately benefits the IOC.
The bottom line is that the Winter Olympics as a whole become a shadow of what they could be without NHL participation. The men’s hockey tournament is the marquee event of the Winter Games, as it should be. If the IOC doesn’t see that, they weren’t paying attention to Vancouver or Sochi. Certainly, the NHL understands that and is trying to see just how much that can be leveraged to keep the best players in the world playing on the biggest sporting stage there is.
This is about to get interesting. And maybe more than a little dirty.