Why the NHL will not have another lockout this year

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 21: Don Fehr and Gary Bettman speak at Hockey SENSE, in partnership with the NHL, NHLPA and Beyond Sport at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at the Hockey Hall of Fame on September 21, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/World Cup of Hockey via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 21: Don Fehr and Gary Bettman speak at Hockey SENSE, in partnership with the NHL, NHLPA and Beyond Sport at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at the Hockey Hall of Fame on September 21, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/World Cup of Hockey via Getty Images) /

Between the opportunity to grow the game and the impending addition of the Seattle franchise, the NHL and NHLPA have the motivation to avoid another lockout.

The Stanley Cup Finals are winding down, and after the next game or two there will be no official NHL hockey until October. However, it is unfortunately possible that the 2019-20 regular season does not get started at that time.

This is because the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL (management and team owners) and NHLPA (player union) is on its last legs. While it is only scheduled to expire after the 2021-22 season, both sides have the option to opt out as soon as this September.

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Since NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took office in 1993, he has overseen three work stoppages in his league, more than the three other major North American sports leagues combined. The worst of these was definitely the loss of the entire 2004-05 season.

Most NHL fans undoubtedly remember the most recent lockout, which took place following the 2012 offseason and extended into the new year. Almost an entire half-season was lost as a result of this stoppage.

Now, with the league once again on the precipice of a lost season, fans are undoubtedly concerned as to whether or not the best sport in the world will return in October. Fear not, my friends: there will be no lockout this year, and here is why.

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It is easy to think of the NHL as one entity, with players and owners alike, but when it comes to the business of hockey this is not the case. In this context, the NHL consists of the franchise owners and league staff, while the players are represented by the Players’ Association (NHLPA).

Due to labor laws, the NHL and NHLPA must agree on a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that, simplistically, outlines how responsibilities and revenues will be shared between the two. Without a CBA, either side can refuse to do business, resulting in a strike (NHLPA) or lockout (NHL).

The current CBA was the result of the most recent lockout, which ended in early 2013. It is a ten-year deal valid until 2022, although both sides have the opportunity to opt out in September. If either side opts out, then a new CBA must be negotiated before the season can start.

The NHL gets the first crack at opting out, and can do so as early as September 1st. If the league decides not to opt out, the NHLPA will then have the opportunity on September 19th. If neither side opts out, the CBA will remain valid until a new one will have to be agreed upon in 2022.

Given the league’s history with labor negotiations (they have never come to an agreement without a lockout), it is natural to be apprehensive over the murky waters lying ahead. However, there are some positive signs coming out of early negotiations.

Long-time USA Today NHL reporter Kevin Allen had this to say in January:

"In my 33 seasons as USA TODAY Sports’ hockey writer, I’m seeing something I’ve never witnessed before.The NHL and NHLPA have started collective bargaining discussions in a cordial way.Acrimony. Mistrust. Skepticism. That’s how negotiations usually start, and historically they have deteriorated from there. Since 1992, every CBA negotiation has resulted in some disruption to a season.That’s why it is noteworthy that the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL are talking constructively about the CBA, even though it’s far too early to draw conclusions about what lies ahead."

Allen goes on to caution against being too optimistic this soon, but as he points out, even some progress is noteworthy given this league’s track record.

More recently, Sportsnet reporter John Shannon was confident in his belief that there would be no lockout this year:

"There will be no work stoppage, there will be no strike, there will be no lockout. Both sides have done too well with this last CBA. What we’re talking now is, we’re talking about tweaks."

Even so, many NHL fans have been hurt far too often in situations like this to take much solace in this. A good chunk of the fanbase will remain skeptical until a new CBA (or an extension to the current one) is signed by both sides.

The same goes for me: I will not be satisfied until the season officially opens in October. That being said, there are two reasons in particular why I am more confident in the league’s ability to avoid a lockout this year than I may have been in the past.

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The 2022 Olympics

One of the issues that was expected to be of major contention in the next CBA negotiations was of NHL players being allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics. They were permitted to do so in 2014, but the league denied them the privilege in 2018.

It is expected that the NHLPA will fight hard to take back the right to go to the Olympics in the future, although it is unlikely that the NHL will be happy with a two-week break in the middle of the season. However, 2022 will not be like the other tournaments, to say the least.

The 2022 Winter Olympics are going to be hosted in Beijing, the first time China has ever hosted the winter games. There is obviously a big financial opportunity in China for the North American sports leagues, and 2022 could be the perfect opportunity for the NHL.

The league has already tried to enter the Chinese market, with preseason games in both 2017 and 2018 having been played in Shanghai, Shenzen and Beijing. There are no games currently scheduled for 2019, but it is likely that they will be looking to return to the country shortly.

The Winter Olympics, and the prospect of seeing the Chinese national ice hockey team, will be a tremendous growth opportunity for the sport as a whole in China. It is almost a given that the NHL will be looking to take advantage of this opportunity.

It is for this reason that many people believe that the NHL will be happy to send its players to the 2022 games, in time for a new CBA to be negotiated anyways. Depending on the location of the 2026 games, they may be a tougher sell for the league, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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Seattle Expansion Franchise

The NHL’s expansion strategy has been criticized in the past, but given the success of the Vegas Golden Knights, it is difficult to argue too much with it. As I have written previously, one of the key factors helping expansion is setting new franchises up for success.

As such, the league will be doing everything in its power to avoid a lockout before the new Seattle franchise joins the league in 2021. While a lockout this year will not necessarily set this new team back, it will certainly not help.

Having to negotiate a new CBA with the impending addition of a franchise would be an extremely difficult proposition, and could even see infighting within the league regarding if the expansion draft should be modified, etc. There are too many variables at play.

If there has to be a lockout in 2022, at least by that point the NHL would have gotten its foothold in Seattle and made new fans. The NHL struggled to bring fans back after 2012, and having to do that while adding a new team would require a strenuous effort.

Running parallel with this is the fact that the NHL on NBC television deal expires in 2021. With live sports at a premium right now for major networks, the league could be looking at a massive windfall with a new contract in a few years.

Having a lockout just a few years before one of the largest revenue sources is up for grabs would be a monumental mistake from the NHL, and they know it. They will be doing everything they can to push any labor issues to after that time.

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There is no reason to believe that the NHL and NHLPA will be able to avoid a work stoppage, especially given the track record between the two. However, talks have been said to have been much better this year, and there is a general sense of optimism right now.

In addition, the 2022 Olympics and impending debut of the Seattle hockey franchise are two important reasons why the NHL would be looking to avoid any sort of work stoppage right now. Keeping everybody happy until at least 2022 appears to be the priority right now.

I highly doubt that the NHL will opt out of the CBA this year. I am less certain about the NHLPA, but there is reason to believe that the league is willing to be more accommodating to the players than they may have been in the past. As fans, we will just have to wait and see.