Did the players hand Gary Bettman a victory even before the battle began?

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When the NHL Players’ Association declined to reopen the collective bargaining agreement, they didn’t just guarantee uninterrupted NHL hockey until 2022. They essentially set the stage for a CBA extension that could go until 2025 or 2026 and may have secured labor peace forever.

Gary Bettman|Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

When the NHL Players’ Association declined to reopen the collective bargaining agreement, they didn’t just guarantee uninterrupted NHL hockey until Sept. 15, 2022. They essentially set the stage for a CBA extension that could go until 2025 or 2026 and may have secured labor peace for, like, forever.

Which is great if you’re an NHL fan who has tired of the constant cycle of lockouts, or an owner who is benefitting from the most owner-friendly agreement in professional sports, or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who just gained another bargaining chip in negotiations for an new league-wide television deal in the United States.

Presumably, you’re also pretty tickled if you’re an NHL player, since there’s a good chance you directed your player rep to vote in favor of the status quo in a vote that was held among the 31 members of the NHLPA’s executive board Sunday night. So everybody’s making money and everybody’s happy. Let’s all sit in a circle, join hands and sing Kumbaya.

You could argue that the players gave Bettman and the owners a clear and decisive victory even before the battle began. And you’d probably be right. But what you have to realize is that any possibility that the players would actually stand up for themselves and take ownership over their contracts sailed in 2005 when a small cabal of players threw then NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow overboard and negotiated a deal with owners that included a salary cap. That system has caused more problems than it has solved and it essentially has not raised the level of pay for the league’s superstars by one dollar.

There are times when I wish Goodenow hadn’t gone into hiding 14 years ago. This is one of those times. I’m pretty sure he’d have some interesting things to say about the players’ decision to give the owners a hard-cap system. The factor that has changed the dynamic this time around is that the owners now have almost everything they want. Not one of them cares that a 22-year-old Mitch Marner will be the highest-paid player in the NHL at $16 million this season and that it will cost the Leafs a total of $47.8 million to pay him, Auston Matthews and John Tavares. Their attitude is that they’re giving up only 50 percent of their revenues. The players and teams can distribute them any way they’d like.

But what you had here was a group of players who were disgruntled about the fact that they lose between 12 and 15 percent of their wages on payday. They had made it very clear that it was the most pressing issue, but when they had a chance to put the league in a position to do something about it, they took a hard pass. So now, no player should ever get to publicly complain about escrow payments for another three years at least. Collective bargaining, in fact any form of bargaining, is all about taking advantage of leverage, and the players had it and handed it back to their employer.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Chief among them is that players have not really fundamentally changed since the days when the NHLPA was in its infancy and Gordie Howe told Ted Lindsay all he wanted to do was play hockey. Another is that from an ownership standpoint, Gary Bettman is the greatest commissioner in the history of the sport. Had the players opted to reopen the CBA, particularly after the league declined, all the goodwill that has been built up between the two sides would have disappeared. The fangs and claws would have come out and, taking this as a personal affront, Bettman likely would have made it a mission to win the negotiation. History tells us that is not the kind of Bettman anyone wants on the other side of the table. History also tells us that Bettman never loses. At some point, escrow will be dealt with, likely by tweaking the definition of hockey-related revenue (HRR) and shuffling pension and benefits to alleviate the players’ share of them. Each owner will have to give up a few million dollars a year through the life of the agreement. And those who are hoping that increased revenues will lead to their favorite teams having more cap space to sign players might be disappointed.

So what you have now is a commissioner who has been emboldened by labor peace for at least another three years and has absolutely zero urgency or motivation to change a landscape that is tilted in his favor in the short-term. Had the players opted to reopen, they would have still had a year to come up with an agreement. The NHLPA is nothing if not a democracy and, in that sense, Don Fehr has done a good job of providing the players with the information they need and truly acting upon their direction. Good or bad, the players will own this decision for a long time. So the next time you hear a player complaining about having to make escrow payments, feel free to tune it out.

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