You may recall a particular NHL game, nearly a decade ago, that threatened to send the sport spiralling back to the dark ages.
On one side of the ice you had Guy Boucher's Tampa Bay Lightning, who had perfected the 1-3-1 neutral zone trap that season to compensate for a lack of talent on their roster. At the other end was Peter Laviolette's Philadelphia Flyers, who decided to send a pointed message on that November 2011 night.
Time running short for NHL to start next season Jan. 1Click to Expand
Posted: 2:27 PM Nov. 24, 2020
A far cry from the standings at Thanksgiving serving as a barometer of which teams are most likely to make the playoffs, the NHL heads into the U.S. holiday without a firm plan announced for next season.
The league and players are running out of time to start the season Jan. 1 as previously planned, with various pandemic-related problems standing in the way. There is uncertainty on many fronts.
The end result was several minutes of nothing, with the Flyers refusing to advance the puck out of their own end and the Lightning content to sit back and wait them out. The crowd went... mild. It was painful to watch, and fortunately became a blip rather than a trend.
I'm reminded of that ugly episode by what's happening now between the league and its players. With fans starving for fresh action, the NHL and NHLPA are engaging in a similar game of chicken.
Neither side has shown a willingness to blink. And just like those folks in Florida who sat there dumbfounded, the hockey world is running out of patience with this latest stalemate that has brought any progress towards a potential 2020-21 season to a screeching halt.
With time of the essence to get a deal done that would see the puck drop by the Jan. 1 target, we learned Wednesday that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Donald Fehr apparently haven't spoken to each other for nearly a week.
Apparently both parties are in full-on pout mode after talks hit a major snag over financial issues. Specifically, the league wants the players to reopen the new collective bargaining agreement they all signed off on four months ago and agree to absorb a bigger hit this coming season to compensate for greater-than-expected losses due to playing without fans owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of the CBA, players agreed to put 20 per cent of their salary in escrow for the 2020-21 season, 14-18 per cent in 2021-22, 10 per cent in 2022-23, and six per cent for the remaining three seasons. In addition, players agreed to a further 10 per cent deferral of salary for the 2020-21 season, based on forecasts that it would be an especially difficult one for the league given all the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic.
Nobody wants to hear about rich athletes and even wealthier owners bickering over money at the best of times. We have even less patience while in the grips of a global pandemic that has turned our collective lives upside–down.
Now the NHL wants that 10 per cent salary deferral doubled to 20 per cent, and the escrow increased from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. An alternate proposal, according to reports, involves raising the deferral from 10 to 26 per cent for 2020-21, but leaving escrow as is until the final three years of the CBA, then increasing it from six per cent to between eight and nine per cent.
Blah, blah, blah, right?
Nobody wants to hear about rich athletes and even wealthier owners bickering over money at the best of times. We have even less patience while in the grips of a global pandemic that has turned our collective lives upside-down.
My advice to both groups: Just shut up and play, guys. Or don't, I guess. But it's going to really cost you in both the short and long term if that's the case.
The players have every right to insist a deal is a deal and the owners should have to live with the existing terms. Just as the owners have every right to point out this is supposed to be a partnership, with a framework in place that allows both sides to split revenues 50-50 through the escrow calculation, but also mutually absorb the losses. And if the players don't pay for it now, they will eventually in the form of even bigger financial hits in the future.
To which there might be some older players, those on their way out of the league, who shrug their shoulders and say "Not my problem to worry about."
I'll give everyone a bit of credit here. At least they've mostly adhered to the "shut up" part, with very little being said publicly. It's almost as if they all recognize they're not going to get a lot of sympathy by airing their dirty laundry. One exception is vocal player agent Alan Walsh, who went on a lengthy Twitter rant on Wednesday.
"Gary Bettman is coming to the table saying he doesn’t like the deal HE negotiated 4 months ago during the pandemic and the players have to give more. Are the players now the owners' bank too? The ink is barely dry on the new CBA," Walsh hissed. "I’m hearing the players want the current agreement — negotiated 4 months ago during the pandemic — to be respected. There are no 'new issues,' it was always a possibility the '20-21 season would start with limited or no fans in buildings."
At this point, I expected Walsh to post a photoshopped picture of a player with a bloody sword plunged in his back, the way he did during the Stanley Cup playoffs when goaltender client Marc-André Fleury was benched by the Vegas Golden Knights in favour of Robin Lehner.
We know the league has a 60-game schedule drafted, with teams playing half of that in their home rinks and the other half on the road. There would be realignment factoring in geography and border restrictions for one season only, including an all-Canadian division. Under this plan, training camps would begin by mid-December. Players, especially those overseas, need to make arrangements to get back to their markets ASAP and satisfy existing quarantine requirements.
Just look at what's happened this week as proof of what a herculean task that will be. Multiple members of the Golden Knights and Columbus Blue Jackets have tested positive for COVID-19. There could be other teams who haven't disclosed such information.
This shouldn't be a surprise, with players not in isolation and living in markets where infection numbers are growing. But it speaks to why it will be important to get a timeline in place that allows for the preparation and testing that will be needed to ensure this goes as smoothly as last summer's return to play, which took place in a bubble environment.
There will be no bubble this time, but teams will be under strict health and safety protocols to limit exposure. Fans in some markets, particularly in the U.S., might be allowed right off the hop, while others teams would take a wait-and-see approach based on local restrictions.
I've talked to a handful of agents in recent days, all off the record, who insist the puck is on the league's side of the ice. What they do next will determine how the players react and whether common ground can be found.
If that's the case, let's hope Bettman has a better action plan than Laviolette did on that fateful night in Florida. Otherwise, we should all get used to sitting on our hands for a while.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.