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THN.com Blog: Kovalchuk ruling will tell tale of NHL-NHLPA labor future

Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils await the league's decision on his restructured contract. (Getty Images)

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Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils await the league's decision on his restructured contract. (Getty Images)

If anything good comes of the standoff between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association over the Ilya Kovalchuk contract – and that’s a Zdeno Chara-sized ‘if’ given their history – it will be that the two sides will have found clarity on at least one issue.

That’s one more than most people would have thought. And who knows? If the two sides can actually agree on something of this magnitude, just maybe they’ll have enough sense to start a dialogue that will avoid labor Armageddon two years from now.

Yes, it’s expecting a lot. But the league and its union have been fighting behind-the-scenes turf wars for the past couple of years now over everything from revenues from international hockey to front-loaded contracts to the Olympics. If later today the two sides announce they have at least dealt with future long-term deals, it will represent a win for both sides and a glimmer of hope that perhaps they can work together to avoid veering the league into the ditch with another lockout.

The league is expected later today – unless the deadline is extended again – to rule on the validity of Kovalchuk’s reworked 15-year deal with the New Jersey Devils. But what we’re more likely to see is a common vision between the league and NHLPA on how these ridiculously long-term deals will be handled in the future. The best-case scenario would be that deals such as those to Kovalchuk, Roberto Luongo and Marian Hossa – none of which violate the letter of the CBA – will be grandfathered in and others like it will be subject to more stringent rules that won’t allow the blatant front-loading that has made the prospect of the player actually honoring it a laughable one.

That’s at least the hope here. It depends on both sides being reasonable and negotiating in good faith, but it’s possible. It’s also crucial given the alternative. Should the league turn the Kovalchuk deal down again, the NHLPA will file a grievance the way it did the last time and the decision on its validity will be left to a third-party arbitrator. The league will then likely go after deals such as those to Luongo, Hossa and Marc Savard and will find itself in a legal mess that could take years to sort itself out. And players, teams and agents will have no better idea today what they can and can’t do and what will and won’t pass the sniff test when it comes to future contracts.

The fact is, it behooves both the league and the players to have some clarity on this. Despite the fact they signed off on a CBA that was supposed to help small-market teams, the high revenue teams have once again put the screws to their partners by coming up with these deals. But these contracts have come back to hurt them as well. If you don’t think the Chicago Blackhawks haven’t felt the impact of the Hossa deal, you certainly haven’t been keeping track of their transactions this summer.

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Even though a lot of teams have signed players to these deals, do you think most of them wouldn’t like to have a do-over when it comes to these pacts? They probably won’t get that, but at least they’ll be saved from themselves in the future.

As far as the players are concerned, these deals serve a very, very small percentage of the constituents and actually hurt much of the rank and file by squeezing out non-star players. And despite reports that the NHLPA is a rudderless, leaderless and vulnerable group, acting executive director Mike Ouellet did not receive his law degree from the back of a matchbox. He and those who are running the NHLPA are not sitting around waiting for Don Fehr to save them and they’re not going to stand for being embarrassed by the NHL.

(And contrary to some reports, Fehr is receiving updates on the situation, but is not front and center, largely because he doesn’t have the mandate.)

Should the league and the NHLPA not be able to come to terms on this issue and the league once again rejects Kovalchuk’s contract and goes after some of the others, all bets are off. And those who have predicted doom and gloom two years down the road – of which your correspondent is one – will have no reason not to continue doing so.

But if they can, it could at least provide some optimism that another cancelled season is not necessarily a given.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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