The NHL is getting its 32nd team, approving Seattle for expansion, but amid the joy and celebration, all signs point to the newest franchise debuting the season after the league and its players go through another labor dispute.
Members of Seattle’s expansion NHL franchise pose with Gary Bettman (middle)|Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images
The Seattle Kraken or Metropolitans or Totems clearly would have loved to be hitting the ice in time for the 2020-21 season. All the better to start making money and recouping a little of that $1.5 billion that’s going to be spent putting an NHL team in the Pacific Northwest. But they’ve waited more than a half-century to be part of the best league in the world, so another year isn’t going to hurt anybody.
This allows the franchise to have its $650-million expansion fee, almost $800-million arena and $70-million training facility firmly in place for its inaugural season. It also allows the NHL to be saved from the embarrassment of unveiling its newest team, only to have it sit on the sidelines for a year while the millionaires and billionaires wage war on how to split $4.5 billion in revenues. So, really, Seattle is not going to have to wait at all, since there’s a really good chance the 2020-21 season is going to be at best a half-season and at worst a complete wipeout.
(Side note: When the NHL announced the Seattle expansion Wednesday, it also announced the Arizona Coyotes would be moving from the Pacific Division to the Central Division. The only problem with that is the NHL Players’ Association did not sign off on it. So it still has to be negotiated. It will likely pass, but it’s an indication of the level of non-communicating between the league and its employees.)
First, there’s absolutely no reason to believe there will not be a lockout in the fall of 2020. Gary Bettman, Hall of Famer, has been at the helm for one strike and three lockouts during his tenure as NHL commissioner. There is little reason to believe this trend won’t continue. And Bettman, Hall of Famer, is a very, very smart man. The last thing he would want is the NHL Players’ Association going into 2020 knowing that the league will be debuting a new team. That would give the NHLPA an enormous amount of leverage should it choose to trigger the opt-out clause in the collective bargaining agreement, which it will almost certainly do on Sept. 15, 2020, two weeks after the Sept. 1 date the NHL faces the same decision.
The Vegas Golden Knights were a boon to the NHL as the most successful expansion franchise in the history of North American professional sports. A Seattle franchise being put on hold in its first season would be every bit as embarrassing to the NHL as Vegas was a source of pride. In case you haven’t noticed, Gary Bettman, Hall of Famer, does not willingly put himself into situations that will reflect badly on him or his league.
The NHL could probably live with this CBA in perpetuity, as flawed as it is. That’s why it offered the NHLPA Olympic participation in exchange for extending it, an entreaty the players politely declined. Had the players been interested in keeping the system as it is, they likely would have agreed to the offer and the NHL would have been in Pyeongchang. The fact that they did not has led many to believe the union will trigger its opt-out.
And this, as usual, plays into Bettman’s hands perfectly. The league declines its opt-out and allows the players to do it, which gives him and the league a convenient scapegoat, the same way they did with the Olympics. That will allow them to, and you can book this, continue to offer the players a 50-50 split on revenues, but “redefine” what Hockey Related Revenues (HRR) are. And after this summer when the best batch of Group II free agents coming out of the entry-level deals in history emerges this summer, they’ll probably try to negotiate an entry-level period of four years. (Which they’ll likely get, since historically players haven’t much cared about the rights of young men who aren’t even members of the NHLPA yet.)
The players, we all know, want to see escrow mitigated. One idea that has been floated to do that would be to allow each NHL team one “franchise player” whose salary would not count against the cap. That would allow the big spenders to spend up to the cap, then sign one player whose salary would not count against the cap and would be subject to a two-dollar tax for every dollar it exceeds the salary cap. That money would go towards lowering escrow payments, which would be welcomed by the big revenue producers and shunned by the paupers, which means it probably doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of passing.
Of course, there are other matters such as term limits, guaranteed contracts, another World Cash Grab of Hockey™ and Olympic participation to be considered. For the last Cash Grab™, the players who played in the tournament each received $70,000 and non-participating NHLers made about $10,000 each. That’s probably not enough money to sway the players to make a lot of concessions to their employers, and it certainly won’t prompt them to give into Bettman’s threats to commit to a tournament before a new CBA is negotiated. And, in fact, following contract after contract where they’ve been forced to give back, the players might just be in the mood to start making a few demands of their own.
All of which creates a witch’s brew of discord on the labor relations front. And there was no way Bettman & Co., were going to allow it to happen the same season a crown jewel of a city would be entering the league.