NHL’s return-to-play agreement is impressive, but CBA extension will be even more important

After three lockouts in the last three decades, the NHL finally has negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement of significant length in a smooth and timely manner.

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Once the coronavirus passes, the Blackhawks will be able to play uninterrupted hockey through 2026 with the NHL’s new CBA extension.

AP Photos

For the first time in its history, the NHL has crafted the framework to play hockey through a global pandemic.

But for the first time since the 1990s, the NHL and the NHL Players Association also have negotiated a long-term extension to their collective-bargaining agreement.

And while ‘‘first time in three decades’’ might not compare to ‘‘first time ever’’ on the surface, the extension was an even more notable, impressive and important development to come out of the NHL’s announcement Monday.

No major North American professional league has been as frequently interrupted and seen its popularity and revenue growth as slowed by labor disputes as the NHL has, regardless of the many reasonable motivations behind each of its strikes and lockouts.

Indeed, the expiration of a CBA essentially has become synonymous with a lockout. Since Bob Goodenow replaced Alan Eagleson as NHLPA president in 1991-92, helping to elevate the union to roughly equal footing as the NHL’s board of governors, the parties literally never have agreed to a new CBA without a work stoppage.

The expiration of the CBA in 1995 led to a 103-day lockout, shortening the 1996 season to 48 games. The expiration of the CBA in 2004 (after a few short extensions) led to a 309-day lockout and the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season. The expiration of the CBA in 2012 led to a 119-day lockout, shortening the 2013 season to 48 games.

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure has become synonymous with lockouts, but that pattern has finally changed.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

So to see a CBA that could have expired as soon as September extended through 2026, pending an official vote, is encouraging for the future.

The NHL and NHLPA — to their credit — laid the groundwork for this cooperation last fall, when both sides elected not to opt out of the CBA in 2020 and instead let the 2022 end date stand. At the time, both sides said they were happy about the progress of negotiations.

It turns out those rosy statements weren’t just for show. With COVID-19 forcing both sides to spend huge portions of the last few months negotiating a return-to-play plan, the opportunity proved ripe for a smooth and ahead-of-schedule CBA extension, too.

Even more impressive, the extension isn’t merely a continuation of the same rules. It includes numerous welcomed revisions.

The new CBA reportedly will guarantee Olympic participation by NHL players in 2022 and 2026. That’s a huge win for players and fans and a surprise, given commissioner Gary Bettman’s emphatic rejection of the idea during All-Star Weekend last winter.

It also will flatten salary-cap inflation for the next several years (because of plummeting league revenue during the pandemic), increase the percentage of escrow held pre-emptively from players’ paychecks, make no-trade clauses travel with traded players who had agreed to lift them temporarily, limit the types of conditions for conditional draft picks included in trades and institute other small changes.

Both sides gained several key items on their wish lists, effectively navigated the difficult logistical and financial implications of the time and did so in a timely manner.

In the last 30 years of NHL history, it has been rare to see any of those things occur, much less all three simultaneously.

So in August, when the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs begin (if all goes according to plan), it will be a testament to an effective spring and summer of negotiations.

But when hockey continues steadily in 2022-23, 2023-24 and so forth, those same negotiations will pay even greater dividends.

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