TORONTO — It's the proverbial calm before the storm.
Both the CFL and its players are enjoying some down time over the holidays. But things will definitely heat up in the new year when the two sides come together to begin negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.
The current deal is scheduled to expire May 15, 2019.
When talks formally begin, Brian Ramsay, the executive director of the CFL Players Association, said everything will be on the table. However, Ramsay admits long-term player care and money will be the union's top priorities.
"I think it's safe, at a high level, to say those are normally the two issues," Ramsay said. "But I can say everything is going to be discussed."
Currently, CFL teams are responsible to care for injured players for one year from the date of injury. If a player requires additional medical treatment after that time, he's financially responsible to cover them.
And those costs can be staggering. Just ask former CFL player Jonathan Hefney.
He suffered a career-ending neck injury while playing for the Montreal Alouettes on Oct. 1, 2015 against the Ottawa Redblacks at TD Place. Hefney was told he'd need to undergo three surgeries as a result of the injury, the first coming in 2016. The $88,000 cost was covered by insurance and the Alouettes.
But a year later, the coverage ended with Hefney still requiring additional medical care. But the Alouettes were no longer liable and Hefney was ineligible for provincial workers’ health benefits, meaning he's on the hook financially to cover his medical costs.
The CFLPA is working to change that. Since October, the union has met with government officials in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario asking they review their workers' compensation laws so pro athletes can secure benefits.
The CFLPA plans to meet with government officials in Manitoba and Quebec early in the new year.
"We just ran out of time," Ramsay said. "The players don't believe long-term health care should be something that's bargained.
"We believe professional athletes should be treated as every other employee."
Contract talks between the CFL and CFLPA were tumultuous in 2014. Negotiations broke down several times and there was a threat of a players' strike before the sides hammered out a five-year deal.
That agreement boosted the salary cap from $4.4 million to $5 million and included a provision to increase the cap $50,000 annually to its current level of $5.2 million. The minimum salary last year was $54,000, up from $45,000 prior to the 2014 agreement.
CFL players have gone on strike before. The first — and last — time was 1974 but the situation was settled prior to the start of the regular season.
Scott Flory, a former Alouettes offensive lineman, spearheaded the CFLPA's bargaining unit in 2014 as the union president. Jeff Keeping, another former CFL offensive lineman, has that position heading into these contract talks but will have the benefit of working with executive member Marwan Hage, who was involved in the '14 talks for the players.
The CFL has yet to unveil its bargaining unit. Mark Cohon was the league's commissioner in 2014, a post currently held by Randy Ambrosie, but Stephen Shamie, the CFL's legal counsel, participated in those talks and is expected to be deeply involved again this time around.
The two sides will head to the bargaining table at a positive time for the league.
Schooners Sports and Entertainment continues to work toward establishing a CFL expansion franchise in Halifax. But the biggest hurdle facing the group is the absence of a suitable stadium.
Although construction has yet to begin on a facility, the group hopes to build a 24,000-seat multi-use stadium on the east shore of Halifax Harbour.
Last month, Ambrosie signed a letter of intent with the Liga de Futbol Americano Professional, an eight-team Mexican semi-pro American spring football circuit. It's not a binding contract but paves the way for the two leagues to plan joint events — including a potential CFL game in Mexico City in 2020 — and have players from Mexico suit up in Canada.
On Thursday, the leagues announced a combine and draft of Mexican players interested in the CFL will be held in Mexico City next month
Although formal contract talks between the CFL and CFLPA have yet to formally begin, Ambrosie and union members have been meeting on a monthly basis for some time.
"When Randy got into the (commissioner's role) we asked for this to be a priority and he made it a priority," Ramsay said. "Collective bargaining is about relationships and trying to have the other side understand so one would hope strengthening that relationship actively would be a benefit."
But the two sides have had their differences.
The CFLPA spoke out against the CFL last January when Ambrosie upheld predecessor Jeffrey Orridge's 2017 directive that teams refrain from paying players signing bonuses this off-season until a new CBA is ratified.
That move drew the ire of the CFLPA, which contended the directive made it nearly impossible for the start of positive discussions.
But Ambrosie, who spent nine seasons in the CFL as an offensive lineman, has said he feels he can bring a unique perspective to the talks.
"I like to think my personal relationship with the players based on my passion for what they do is as high as anyone in a position like mine in the world of sports," he said. "I know in the long run the way for us all to win — fans, players, the league, teams — is to grow the game, make it bigger and stronger."
Players have shown a united front heading into contract talks. They've been very vocal on social media and during the playoffs all sported CFLPA attire when speaking with reporters following games.
"The players' resolve (is to) find a fair settlement and that's the discussions we're having," Ramsay said. "That's the goal of the CFLPA.
"We have to understand that, yes, this is a process. Probably one of the most important things for us going in is making sure everyone is tied in and has the ability to get the information that's available."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press