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MICHAEL TRAIKOS: Cooler heads prevailed with CBA extension

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals in action against the New York Islanders during their game at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on March 1, 2019 in Uniondale, N.Y. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals in action against the New York Islanders during their game at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on March 1, 2019 in Uniondale, N.Y. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

It turns out that escrow wasn’t a hill worth dying on after all.

Neither was Olympic participation, doing away with entry-level contracts, or redefining hockey-related revenues. In fact, nothing about the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — an agreement that was supposedly skewed in the owners’ favour — was so egregious that it was worth jeopardizing another lost season over.

For that, we thank the players and give them credit.

This could have been nasty. They could have dug in their blades and fought for all that they lost in the past two labour agreements. Instead, cooler heads prevailed.

It could be that the players actually care more about the fans than themselves this time around. Or maybe — and this is probably much closer to the truth — losing thousands of dollars off their paycheques in the form of escrow is not quite as bad as not having a paycheque at all.

Either way, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association will have labour peace for another three years after both sides eventually agreed not to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

“While players have concerns with the current CBA,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr wrote in a statement, “we agree with the league that working together to address those concerns is the preferred course of action instead of terminating the agreement following this season.

“We have been having discussions with the league about an extension of the CBA and expect that those talks will continue.”

The news came as a bit of a surprise. It now gives both sides until September 2022 to negotiate a new agreement or another extension that some believe could run until 2026. Whatever comes of it, you can bet that they will use the time wisely.

No one wants another lockout, whether it’s for the entire year or half the season. And this time, you can actually take their word for it.

“The discussions in all of our dealings over the years have never been contentious or hostile,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told Postmedia in a one-on-one interview earlier this month in Chicago. “We’ve had major differences of opinion, but I don’t see a lot of that this time. We’ve had constructive dialogue.”

From the NHL’s side, which made the decision not to opt out on Sept. 1, extending the CBA was always a no-brainer. The league has never been in a better place both on and off the ice. The NHL has rich TV contracts, a growing global presence and will welcome a 32nd team in the next couple of years.

Are there problems? Of course there are. But as Bettman told Postmedia, “The vital signs are good and the future is bright. With that in mind, our focus was how do we keep it going?”

The players’ union agreed, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

They had been expecting for the worst. It wasn’t a coincidence that of the $65.358-million that Toronto’s Mitch Marner signed for last weekend, $60.958-million was paid out in lockout-protected bonuses.

A fight was expected. Now, it seems they’re preparing for a peaceful negotiation. Of course, there’s much work to be done between now and 2022. What will be interesting is who will be leading the charge.

It was clear from speaking to many of the players following their NHLPA meeting in Chicago earlier this month that while the younger generation might be more engaged, it’s the older generation still speaking the loudest.

Only this time, the message coming from them might have been different than it was seven years ago when Alex Ovechkin was adamant about representing Russia at the Olympics, even if it meant breaking off his contract. Having been down this road before and having missed half a season for basically nothing, the players sure don’t seem as though they have the stomach to go through it again.

“I’m not going to say anything now,” Washington Capitals captain Ovechkin said at the recent NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago. “I don’t want to be in that position anymore. We’ll see what’s going to happen. Ask the PA and ask the NHL. They have to make the decision, not us. Last time, it was hard and it was painful.”

Indeed, Ovechkin and his peers are at different stages of their careers now.

Jonathan Toews had been outspoken about escrow, which has the effect of shaving money off his paycheque. But keep in mind that Toews, who admitted that he is fighting to keep his head above water with the younger players entering the league these days, has four more years remaining on his current contract.

Ovechkin, who has two years remaining on his current deal, is also chasing down Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record. It’s hard to do that when you’re standing on the picket line.

In other words, the problems with the CBA don’t seem so problematic when you’ve only got a few more years left in the tank. After all, that’s a problem for another day and perhaps another generation of player.

“I think everyone can agree that the game’s in a good place,” Toews said at the NHL Player Media Tour. “The fact that you can’t pick a winner in the playoffs is a pretty good sign that it’s more interesting than ever to watch the game.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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