This is what the NHL and Gary Bettman do when they don’t get their way: They take their puck and go home. Or stay home. They refuse to play. They did it through Owners’ Lockouts I, II and III in 1994, 2004 and 2012 and they’re doing it again with the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The only thing surprising about this is that anyone, least of all the players, would be surprised by this.
When the NHL persecuted and prosecuted the Devils in the 2010 Ilya Kovalchuk collusion cases (yes, plural), the league’s attorneys successfully charged that the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement, rather than the letter of the law, had been violated. Now, though, the spirit of the CBA means little to these folks.
Because though Bettman succeeded in removing the commitment to play in the Olympics from the 2013 CBA after it had been included in the 2005 treaty that codified the hard cap, the league signed off on Article 24.5, which states:
“The NHL and the NHLPA shall continue to work together to jointly create and exploit other international projects and initiatives involving NHL players … including games, series, events or contests [e.g., the World Cup of Hockey, European Champions League, Victoria Cup competition, Olympic participation, etc.].”
Does anyone for a moment believe the league upheld its obligation to work with the players’ association regarding Olympic participation? Or does the take-it-or-leave-it proffer offered by the commissioner over the winter to authorize league approval for an expanded international schedule including the next two Olympics in exchange for an extension of the CBA through 2024-25 meet the definition of good faith implied by 24.5?
Maybe the NHLPA should file a grievance.
Clearly, Bettman has been holding the Olympics as a five-ringed chip to use as leverage against the union since 2013. That is what the Games have become to Sixth Avenue: a pressure point rather than an opportunity to market its players and establish itself as a global enterprise. But that never has been the priority. The priority has been getting the next win against the union.
The league’s unilateral decision not to participate in the 2018 Games is not the end of hockey, not the end of the NHL and it sure is not the end of the Olympics, which will continue to profit quite nicely with its multi-billions of broadcasting rights agreements that run through 2032.
It is just the beginning of Owners’ Lockout IV.
So, other than this fiasco and the ongoing concussion lawsuit that will hang over the NHL well after its ultimate legal resolution, the top four stories of the 2016-17 season:
1. Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs arriving at least a year ahead of the most optimistic scenario that could have been imagined by Brendan Shanahan, the man with the plan. Or by Lou Lamoriello, the general manager who presumably was more than an innocent bystander when the Leafs acquired Frederik Andersen from the Ducks and anointed him No. 1 by virtue of a five-year, $25 million contract. Or by Mike Babcock, who may not be easy but sure seems to spend a lot of his time winning. True enough, the Leafs were fortunate to be swimming in the tank of water that contained Matthews, but they did not make the mistake of passing on Mitch Marner at fourth overall in 2015 just as they did not pass on William Nylander at eighth overall the previous year after the Islanders, Vancouver and Carolina did at five, six and seven, respectively.
2. Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot and the Oilers’ surge that provides a roadmap for franchises that are dysfunctional enough to draft first-overall four times within six years and within the top seven, seven straight times. Does anyone, by the way, still believe the Sabres pulled off a coup by acquiring Robin Lehner from Ottawa in exchange for a No. 1 instead of going after Talbot when the then-understudy to Henrik Lundqvist was on the market in 2015?
3. John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets’ twin reinventions, the young, skilled team skyrocketing into prominence with a 16-game winning streak that fell one short of the NHL record and the older coach reaching back into his past to embrace “safe is death” all over again soon after his Team USA World Cup misadventure seemed to make it safe to project his metaphorical death behind an NHL bench.
4. Sidney Crosby remounting the pedestal with a typically dominant World Cup exhibition and refusing to step down from it through a season of superiority that might have been his best, yet.
Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Jesper Fast, Antti Raanta, Rick Nash, by all means, not one unworthy candidate among them. But I would give my vote to J.T. Miller as the winner of the Rangers’ Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award.
Playoff envy for Taylor Hall, now seven years without a career postseason game and counting. The same for Jeff Skinner, but at least his Hurricanes seem much, much closer to the promised land than the Devils.
But doesn’t just about everyone?
Meanwhile, the U.S. Women’s National Team not only wins at the table, but it wins on the ice, as well.