Thursday, July 19, 2012

Would The NHL Season Ever Start Without a CBA In Place?

NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr has said that the Union would have no problem with the NHL season starting without a negotiated CBA. Here's what Fehr said:

"The law is that if you don't have a new agreement, and as long as both sides are willing to keep negotiating, you can continue to play under the terms of the old one until you reach an agreement. All I know is that in baseball, there were any number of occasions in which we played while the parties were continuing to negotiate."

Assuming the sides are fine with it, Fehr is correct in that the old terms of the CBA would govern the terms of employment until such time as the sides agree to a new deal.

However, the real question is this - would the owners allow the season to start without a new deal in place?

As a lawyer, I'm totally fine making things far more complicated than they need to be. It pays my mortgage and lets me buy lots of golf balls. If there is a grey area, I'm happy to pitch a tent and hang out there for a while.

In this case, there is no need to qualify my response. The answer is this - there is no chance that the owners would ever start the NHL season without a new CBA in place.

Zero. Nada. Zilch. Nill. Zip. Niente. Noll.

There are a couple of reasons for that. First, the owners would never give up the leverage associated with locking out players. Being able to deprive NHL players of their employment and income can be pretty powerful. To forfeit that option would be to undermine your own negotiating position (I'm sure this is covered somewhere in the first couple of chapters in Getting to Yes).

Second reason is this - if the season ever started without a new CBA, the NHLPA would suddenly gain some leverage. If the owners did start the season without a CBA, their expectation would of course be that the entire season and playoffs would be played. The owners would not, for example, lockout the players mid-season and risk losing the playoffs.

However, without a new CBA it would be open, in theory, for the NHLPA to strike mid-season if it feels that things are not going well. That could wipe out the final part of the season and the playoffs. This approach would apply tremendous pressure on the NHL to get a deal done. 

Want a precedent? MLB owners started the season in 1994 without a CBA. The same Donald Fehr was unhappy with the offer on the table (which included a salary cap and rollback on free agency eligibility), and the players went on strike on August 12.

The rest of the season, including the World Series, was called off by Bud Selig on September 14. The move to cancel the rest of the season meant the loss of $580 million in ownership revenue and $230 million in player salaries.

There is simply too much to risk for owners to start the season without a new CBA. That scenario is just unlikely. No grey here.


RTWAP said...

To complicate things further, I wonder if the owners would be OK with going through the pre-season if some progress had been made and it looked like there might be an agreement before the start of the season.

But the NHLPA would probably want to ensure that league revenues from those pre-season games be included in the revenue for whichever season is next played, whether it's a delayed 2012-13 or a completely different year.

Eric Macramalla said...

They won't start preseason with risk of pulling plug. Nothing moves until CBA ratified.

Anonymous said...

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