SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The NHL's current collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2022. However, this coming September, both the NHL and NHLPA have the option to exercise an opt-out clause. Over the past few months, leaders from both groups have begun meeting to hash out core issues ahead of that deadline.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly said the league is "not looking for a fight." That's hopeful, considering the league could be on the verge of its fourth work stoppage in Bettman's 25-year tenure. What does the union think?
ESPN sat down with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr at All-Star Weekend to discuss the tone of negotiations so far, the new player tracking deal, Olympics, the lack of a domestic violence policy and more.
ESPN: The mantra from Gary Bettman has been that the league is not looking for a fight. Are the players looking for a fight?
Donald Fehr: No. Of course the players are not looking for a fight. The players' view is what it always has been. And what I expressed in the last go-around ad nauseam, is that from the players' standpoint a work stoppage is the last resort you come to. You only do it when that's a better option than the agreements that are on the table. That hasn't been the management practice in a number of sports in the last 35 or 40 years. But hopefully this time will be different. We'll see.
ESPN: We've also heard that in your meetings so far, there has been a lack of tension, which is noticeably different in tone from previous negotiations. Would you agree with that assessment?
Fehr: Yes. Although ... a win or a loss counts just as much in Game 10 of the season as it does in Game 75. But the tension level might be a bit different. We're closer to Game 10.
ESPN: Escrow is one of the big issues. Bill Daly has mentioned before that there could be some adjustment to the cap that could be done to ease escrow for the players. Is that something the PA is looking at?
Fehr: Obviously escrow is a real problem. We believe that what the teams offer players is a closer measure of their worth. And what the teams offer players [is] less escrow. And that ought to be accounted for. There are obviously a number of things you can do to address it, and I'm sure we'll be talking about it.
ESPN: When we talk to players about the most important issues to them in the next CBA, we usually hear two answers: escrow and the Olympics. Are you confident that an Olympic solution can be achieved in the next CBA?
Fehr: I would like to believe that as far as between us and the NHL, that will not turn out to be a difficult issue. We have a shared desire, if we can figure out how to do it -- and getting from here to there is harder than saying you want to go there -- to develop a long-range international calendar. It's very difficult for me to imagine that would be done without including the Olympics. The reason I said "between us and the NHL" is that we still have to have negotiations with the IOC.
ESPN: So the next potential date for an event is February 2021?
Fehr: February 2021 is the next possible date for the World Cup, yes.
ESPN: When we talk about that potentially being on the table, would the PA only agree if there is a calendar attached to that?
Fehr: There is a generalized tendency to say, 'We're now talking about the international, so we're going to make an agreement on international, this is going to trade for that, you have to have this, and the rest of it." It doesn't work that way. You're looking at an overall agreement. Since we both would like a long-term calendar, I would like to think that will, in part, be a central part of it. Could you do it without it in theory? Sure, in 2016 we did it without it in theory.
It's not the best, because you want to schedule the events, you want to interest the advertisers, you want to build the brand, you want to have a regular recurring event for the fans, you want to do all those kinds of things. So that takes more long-term planning than what we've had a chance to do.
ESPN: It seemed like missing the 2018 Olympics really set things back for the players. Because there was a level of anger on that issue that is palpable. Do you agree?
Fehr: I'll let you make that judgment about anger. But look, whether other people would agree with it or not, or if observers would agree, participation in the Olympics is a meaningful thing for a whole lot of players. The Canadians, particularly so, and for Europeans. Most players look at it and say "OK, the Olympics are coming up, this is either my only chance or maybe my last chance. Because in four years who knows if I'm going to be good enough, if I'm going to be healthy enough, if there's going to be three other young kids who are going to take my place."
So it tended to be viewed as not something we can do again another time, but as an opportunity permanently lost for what a lot of players thought was no good reason. I don't want to get into anger. But if you ask the question differently, do they have memories? The answer is yes.
ESPN: The NHL is the only of the four North American major professional sports leagues without a domestic violence policy. Do you believe there needs to be one?
Fehr: It depends on what you mean by that. Two things, you could say here we have a domestic violence policy, and we're going to label these things domestic violence and these other things not, and we're going to have hard and fast rules. Or you can say -- and this is what the NHL has done -- if we have inappropriate conduct, wrongful conduct, whether it's domestic violence or it's not, we can evaluate each case on its own merits and then make a judgment as to what needs to be done and third parties can make the judgment as to whether we acted appropriately. That's normally the way discipline works.
So when you say policy, you're talking about some sort of mandatory pre-judged disciplinary proceedings or something like that, as opposed to, do they get the training, do they talk to the people, all the rest of it?
Fehr: I am old-school. I think we ought to be bright enough to recognize conduct whether or not [there is a written policy]. Now, if over time, you would get a number of matters develop, and you could say, look, you don't have a formal policy and it's actually getting in the way of what you want to do, then you would re-examine it. But I don't think we're there yet. And I think we're lucky enough that the numbers of incidents that we have had are tiny.
ESPN: Do you believe the commissioner has been fair in the discipline he has given out for those incidents?
Fehr: I don't talk about the individual cases. The players have a right to appeal. Everybody ought to have a right to appeal under those circumstances. I will tell you that the discipline, especially in the last case [Predators forward Austin Watson], even after the arbitrator ruled, was very severe. Eighteen games is a long time.
ESPN: Are you worried at all the NHL is going to come after the appeals process because of some of the recent losses it has taken?
Fehr: Do I know whether they are going to come after it? No. Am I bothered by it? No. Do I expect the players would agree to it? Probably not.
ESPN: It's interesting that players agreed not to have any data found from player tracking used in contract negotiations. I would think some data for non-star players -- third-liners, fourth-liners -- could help their cases in these situations. So what was the thinking there?
Fehr: You have to answer this. There are some people that are concerned about making additional information available. Sometimes you hear from people who would say, look, I know what my job is, and if I'm a half second slower than I was two years ago, as long as I'm there when I'm supposed to be, what's the difference? There may be other players who may well have the reaction you do. The critical thing here is, we didn't have agreement on everything, but we got agreements officially to do the experiments and see how it works. Then we'll see what the data is, we'll see if it's helpful in other licensing agreements, we'll see if the broadcasters like it, and we'll see the rest of it.
Then the players, along with their agents and everybody else, can look at it and say in that particular respect, does this make any sense? Should it be tweaked? Should it be reversed? This is short term. These are baby steps.
ESPN: I understand the players have agreed to license their names as part of that.
Fehr: Again, short term. Nobody knows what this is going to be. Everyone is trying to sort through what it's going to mean. If you ask 10 people what the future stakes of this is going to be in five or 10 years, somebody is going to be right. Because you're going to get an answer from A to Z over 10 people. Nobody really knows. You have to try it and see what it does, what revenue it produces, and see if it has any effects going the other way. All of this is baby steps and experimental, I think.
The notion -- and I think the NHL shares our view on this -- that we feel confident enough to predict what everyone is going to do, and how this is all going to work out, strikes me as something I wouldn't bet on. It's too new.
ESPN: When it comes to medical coverage or benefits for former players, is that something you feel can be achieved in the next CBA?
Fehr: It's something that I'm sure will be explored in some fashion.
ESPN: There has been talk of the league trying to reduce the length of a max contract. Is that something you are concerned about?
Fehr: Concern was on the table in the last agreement, the last go-around. I am of the view that you pretty much ought to leave players and teams alone. Sometimes, depending on your perspective, they'll make good deals and sometimes they'll make bad deals. Sometimes they make deals which are longer and shorter because it structures the financial aspect of it in a certain way. I don't know why you'd want to limit that flexibility.
From a players' standpoint, any time you shorten maximum length of contract, what you do is shorten the`available security a player can get. I suspect you can figure out what their reaction to that would be. But, an agreement is everything that is on the table or people talk about. You really can't isolate them. Would you agree that we're going to play four 20-minute periods? The answer to that is no. What if I pay everybody $10 million a year more, well, maybe I need to think about it then. So we'll see.