The NHL’s return to action this summer came after negotiations not only to solidify health and safety protocols, but on a new collective bargaining agreement. Having endured a canceled season in 2004-05, and lockout-shortened campaigns in 1995 and 2013, everyone in the sport knew that it was important to avoid another work stoppage coming out of a pandemic that was going to be challenging enough for a league that depends heavily on gate revenues.
The new CBA was negotiated with the knowledge that hockey-related revenue, which is used to calculate the salary cap in normal times, would be heavily impacted by arenas emptied due to the coronavirus. There are years-long provisions related to players’ pay being held in escrow in order to make up for the difference, and procedures for the owners’ wallets to be made whole over the years to come.
They had a deal, agreed to by both sides. But now it’s not good enough for management, and the start of the 2021 season is in danger.
ESPN reported that players felt “blindsided” by owners’ request for revisions to their months-old deal, with quotes like, “That’s bull,” and “It’s what we agreed on for the next six years. Why do we have to change it again?”
The accounting of the story in the Los Angeles Times was sourced more to management — with a quote from the COO of the Kings’ parent company AEG — but also pointed to the snag here being a management ask, as, “according to people familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak publicly, Commissioner Gary Bettman asked players to defer an additional 13 percent of their salaries next season beyond the 10 percent deferral they accepted in July. Players will eventually get that money back, but without interest.”
There’s a lot of other nitty-gritty about escrow, but the gist of it is that owners are looking at a pandemic situation that not only hasn’t gotten better as 2021 approaches, but that is getting worse by the day in November, with new records in America constantly being set for cases and hospitalizations. Given how many people are still planning to travel for Thanksgiving and hold large family gatherings, it’s only going to — somehow — get worse in the weeks ahead, with the post-holiday bloom set to coincide with when the NHL wants its non-playoff teams to open training camp in mid-December.
It’s long been obvious that sports leagues don’t care about rising positivity rates, but only about whether they physically have enough healthy bodies to stage games, and whether the localities where those games are played will allow them to sell tickets to people who are technically required to wear masks but can constantly be seen on television with uncovered faces.
That quote in the L.A. Times story? It’s Kelly Cheeseman saying, “The focus is still very much on Jan. 1, and the league and players are committed to making that happen. That said, we’re going to have to make some decisions here in the next week or two, and we’re excited to make those decisions.”
There is nothing exciting about this. There isn’t some kind of achievement here like there was in setting up the Toronto and Edmonton hubs that proved to be safe for the resumption of the 2020 season. The excitement is in turning the cash faucet back on. The focus is on Jan.1? Really? What country are you living in where December isn’t going to be absolute hell, and professional ice hockey is going to be a legitimate priority?
The players and owners made a deal, and the owners want to go back on that deal. As a labor matter, they’re completely wrong, but Bettman and his bosses really should keep pushing for more clawbacks, not because they’re entitled to more than they agreed to in the summer, but because their craven commitment to money above all else might finally serve a real purpose. Once training camps start, it’s not going to be like the summer when the NHL was able to stay COVID-free. Not in December 2020 in America — no chance. The best hope to save lives and not needlessly expose people to a rampaging virus for the sake of regular-season hockey is NHL owners’ everlasting greed.