Commentary

Union's CBA call just the beginning

Updated: January 23, 2009, 6:21 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- Friday's announcement that the National Hockey League's players would extend the collective bargaining agreement at least through the fall of 2011 might be seen by some as some kind of achievement, an end piece.

It's not. It is a beginning.

And unless both the NHL and its players use the intervening time to continue to work at deficiencies in the current agreement and ensure labor peace well beyond the life of the CBA, then the announcement will be pointless.

It came as no surprise that the NHL Players' Association's 30 team representatives had universally supported taking this one-time opportunity to extend the deal two more years instead of ending the deal next September.

The new deal, believed at the outset to be a major victory for the owners, has turned out to be a boon to players. But NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly and a number of players pointed out Friday's announcement does not mean they are totally enamored of the deal.

[+] EnlargePaul Kelly
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesPaul Kelly has been the NHLPA's executive director since Oct. 24, 2007.

Funny, many owners feel the same way.

That suggests there are ways the two sides can, and should, get at fixing this deal at the earliest opportunity.

The process has already begun.

As ESPN.com reported last week, the two sides have already altered language in the CBA to allow planning for continued regular-season games in Europe and for the resumption of the World Cup of Hockey in 2011. Instead of waiting for the end of the CBA to address the issue, the league and union worked to make changes that benefited both sides and, in the end, the game itself.

That, said NHLPA director of player affairs Glenn Healy, is the perfect example of the kind of work that has to be done between now and the end of the CBA. "It's huge. Just start talking now," Healy told ESPN.com.

He suggested there are elements of the CBA, which he likened to the Magna Carta, that are simply ridiculous, like the clause that stipulates whatever happens to a player who is over 35 -- presumably even if he dies -- his salary still counts against the cap. "Who thought that up?" Healy asked.

Although average salaries have risen beyond the $1.8 million average that marked the pre-lockout, pre-salary-cap era (they were at $1.9 million last season and will be higher this season) and players are benefiting from the dramatically reduced age of free agency that was written into the new deal, there are a number of issues the players would like to see addressed.

The players are going to end up leaving between 10 and 15 percent of their salaries in escrow this year as a result of declining revenues, and they would like to revisit that part of the agreement. They would also like to have a say in major league decisions like expansion and/or relocation.

Although the league has no plans to expand at this time, Kelly said he wouldn't be surprised to see team movement in the not-too-distant future.

"I can't point to anything specific, but I would not at all be surprised to see a team move in the next five years. Maybe more than one," Kelly said.

The players will also be fighting to continue their involvement in the Olympics past the 2010 Vancouver Games, something NHL owners are likely to oppose.

It's believed one of the issues the league will try to push across in the next CBA is eliminating guaranteed contracts. That's a core issue for the players, and Kelly suggested if the league simply throws that on the table and says take it or leave it, well … the process of knocking down issues one at a time won't get much traction.

But, Kelly said, he is confident the two sides can find some common ground to work through problems as they appear.

Is he being naive?

If the league and its players truly believe another labor stoppage would be devastating to the league's future, then Kelly better not be.

"The players certainly appreciate that another lockout would have been enormously damaging to the sport," Kelly said. "We seem to have rebounded pretty well from the last one; the sport has grown substantially each of the past three years. The guys that went through the lockout, it was a difficult time for those guys. It's almost like you're still recovering from the last hangover, and do you really want to go out and do this all over again?"

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman praised Friday's announcement and suggested it illustrates the current system is working.

"We are extremely pleased that the league and the players now can move forward together and that the fans' focus can remain on the ice, where it belongs," Bettman said in a release.

In the months leading up to the end of the previous CBA, there was an impending feeling of doom, as though the two sides simply couldn't wait to throw each other down. The owners were steadfast in their belief they needed a new economic model and were prepared to shut down the entire league to get it. The players were just as persistent in their refusal to accept a salary cap.

In the end, the owners were victorious. They just didn't know exactly what they'd won, just as the players have been pleasantly surprised at how little they lost.

Although both sides believe there are significant flaws in the current deal, there is a feeling that whatever looms, there isn't one potentially crippling issue to derail the game.

"There are many aspects of the deal that we are not satisfied with, and I'm sure that several of the owners would probably make the same statement," Kelly said. "If either side identifies issues of serious concern, we should seek to isolate, address and resolve those issues if possible.

"That way, when we arrive at the 11th hour in this deal, hopefully we will have the platform of our next agreement substantially completed," Kelly said. "All that should be left are a handful of issues to be resolved."

In a couple of years, we'll find out if Kelly's plan had merit, and whether or not Friday's announcement was the start of something meaningful for the future of the game.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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