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NHL Return to Play: the rubber meets the road (and, oh yeah, there's Covid)

December 2, 2020, 1:49 PM ET [288 Comments]
Carol Schram
Vancouver Canucks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
I was planning to write more today about how I think the Canucks are being underestimated going into the new season. I got so carried away with defending the honour of J.T. Miller and Thatcher Demko in the last blog, I didn't even get around to talking about how I think it's quite reasonable to expect more year-over-year improvement from the team's young stars, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, as well as players like Brock Boeser. And how Nate Schmidt should be a massive upgrade on the blue line. And how adding a young defenseman or two is not a bad thing.

But I can get back to that. There's lots of gas being poured on the fire by the NHL and the players' association this week. It's getting ugly, but I'm hoping that means we're getting closer to resolution?

Remember all that goodwill between the NHL and the players when they negotiated the Memorandum of Understanding that got the playoffs up and running?

That image is getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror with each passing day.

Now that we're into December, the prospect of a January 1 start to the season looks all-but-impossible as soon as you factor in travel and quarantine challenges for players, plus a reasonable-length training camp to get ready for the season.

Plus — there's still the Covid issue, now causing major scheduling and roster challenges in the NFL, as well as restrictions in some regions.

Over in Finland, Liiga has now opted to pack things in for a couple of weeks.

On TSN's Insider Trading on Tuesday, Frank Seravalli said that while the preference remains for all 31 NHL teams to play in their own rinks, the league is aware that it may need to make adjustments on the fly — as the San Francisco 49ers have had to do by moving their next two home games to Arizona.

But the bigger issue is that the money conflict between the players and owners is now starting to be played out in the public sphere.

Multiple outlets have reported that the league is looking for concessions worth $300 million from players to get the season started. And here's why the owners are looking for a do-over, according to Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star.

"Bettman kept the owners out of the talks with Fehr over the summer that led to the completion of the season and this memorandum of understanding that – on the face of it – guarantees a season in which the players will be paid 72 per cent of what they’re owed.

Bettman sprung the MOU on the board of governors, who unanimously endorsed it. It’s believed some voted merely on Bettman’s recommendation. Now, having subsequently read the MOU after it passed, some are unhappy with it."

It seems that a handful of owners are saying that they'd lose less money by cancelling the season than by being forced to pay the players their promised 72 percent.

We've heard that Gary Bettman wants to play — as do a majority of the owners. But you know the league is playing hardball when the idea of how they could cancel the season starts getting floated in the media:

"Does that put the Players' Association in a position where they can challenge that move in federal court, effectively calling it an illegal lockout?" asked Darren Dreger on Insider Trading.

"But the owners say if that's the case then, force majeure would be applied, it is a pandemic. And the NHL believes that in the spirit of their existing agreement, they've got cancellation protection. And if they had to cancel, they wouldn't have to make do on the player salaries."

Never shy to chime in with his two cents, outspoken player agent Allan Walsh calls hogwash on this argument:

My take: the owners are now threatening to take their ball and go home because they're mad that the players' association has refused to give an inch after the idea of concessions was floated. They thought they'd be able to negotiate more favourable terms, starting with that ask of $300 million. Instead, the players have given them a flat-out 'no.' And it sounds like they're not all that scared about the threat of cancellation, either.

From the players' point of view, the league and the owners are obligated to find a way to mount a schedule. Even though the environment doesn't look the way they'd hoped when they signed the MOU, they still signed it when the pandemic was a force that was affecting their businesses. So now they need to buckle up.

Here's another example from Wednesday of the two sides trying to curry favour in the court of public opinion.

On the league side — there's nothing we can go before January. Players won't work over Christmas! Then the players' side responds: "No one has even asked us about Christmas. We haven't been presented with any schedule plan, because the money problem needs to be solved first."

It's so interesting to me that this is not like the lockout situations we've seen in the past. Because there is a CBA in place, both sides are obligated to honour it except in extreme circumstances.

According to the players' side, the pandemic is not extreme enough for the owners to shirk their obligations. According to the owners, the 50/50 revenue split that's baked into the CBA means that if the players take more than their share this year, they're going to have to pay it back down the road anyway — so why not just deal with that cash-flow challenge sooner rather than later?

For the past couple of months, we've been hearing that neither side wants to air the dirty laundry in public — and that it's an especially bad look for everybody when so many people are suffering, both health-wise and economically.

But here we are at the dirty-laundry stage, with both sides taking shots.

I think this means that we're getting down to the wire. Can Bettman get the owners sufficiently aligned that they're willing to agree to something that will keep the players happy, so everybody can get back to the very tricky business of trying to set a schedule for the new season?
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