NHL Salary Stalemate Could Put Bettman in Jeopardy
NHL aims to start the season on Jan. 15 plus the latest on James van Riemsdyk, Mats Zuccarello and more in today’s morning coffee headlines.
TSN’s Frank Seravalli, THE ATHLETIC’s Pierre LeBrun and SPORTSNET’S Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston reported the NHL and NHLPA are making progress toward a possible 56-game schedule commencing around Jan. 15.
Johnston indicated talks between the two sides stretched through Thursday night into Friday morning. They discussed 52- and 56-games schedules but both sides prefer the latter. The planning includes a seven-team Canadian division and eight-team U.S. Divisions. He described the tenure of the talks as “good”.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: The Jan. 1 start date was no longer possible after discussions broke down over the league’s requests for increased escrow and salary-deferral rates. A mid-January start date is more sensible, providing time for players to return to their NHL cities. A longer regular-season increases the possibility of staging games with fans in attendance later in the schedule.
Training camps for most clubs could begin as early as Jan. 2. Last season’s seven non-playoff clubs could have a voluntary seven-day pre-camp opening in late December, though a source told LeBrun that’s not a 100 percent certainty.
Friedman indicates those pre-camps could begin on Dec. 28. He also said it’s possible there might not be exhibition games before the regular season begins. The players were told to prepare for a Jan. 15 puck drop while some teams were told they could receive more information over the next several days.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Those non-playoff clubs last took the ice back in March. It believed the league promised them an additional week of training camp. They’ll likely get those extra days, though they might not add up to a full week.
Both sides acknowledge the course of the pandemic could push that mid-January start toward February. Sources told LeBrun the league wants to complete the season by early July ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Friedman said the plan is to end the regular season on May 1, allowing room to make up potentially postponed games, with the Stanley Cup awarded between June 30 and July 7.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: While most NHL fans were pleased to see the completion of the 2020 playoffs, no one wants another postseason running through the summer. The league also doesn’t want the Stanley Cup Final being overshadowed by the Summer Olympics.
The NHL hopes to stage a normal season for 2021-22. They’re still planning to send players to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and must incorporate a two-week break into the ’21-’22 schedule.
Given the current course of the pandemic, Johnston said the possibility of starting the season in bubbles (hub cities) is still on the table. The preference of the owners and players is to play in their home arenas but that might not be possible given the rising COVID numbers in North America and the ramping up of restrictions in some areas.
Friedman suggests the first couple of weeks of the season could see teams playing in hub cities, moving back to all NHL cities over the course of the season. He wouldn’t be shocked, for example, if the San Jose Sharks began the season playing in Arizona because of the health restrictions in Santa Clara County, California, where the Sharks’ home arena is located.
What wasn’t discussed was the stalemate between the league and the NHLPA over player salaries. Friedman said it sounds like the league’s request to increase escrow payments could be taken off the table because the players won’t agree to that. However, he indicated they are potentially more willing to talk about salary deferrals. LeBrun speculated the players might agree to a lower deferral rate but feels they’ll want something from the league in return.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: The players won’t agree to increase the escrow rate because that’s money they won’t get back. While they probably aren’t happy about raising the deferred salary rate, that money will be returned in equal installments over the final three years of the CBA extension.
What they’ll want in return from the league remains to be seen. Theories pitches by several pundits suggest including interest in those deferred payments, expanding the playoffs from 16 to 20 teams, or increased post-playing career benefits for retired players.
PHILLY.COM: Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said the players are “ready to roll” if the team owners honor the collective bargaining agreement. As the Flyers NHLPA player rep, van Riemsdyk said multiple scenarios regarding the amount of revenue that could be created this season was taken into account when the extension to the CBA was negotiated.
“As players, we’re ready to roll and ready to play and uphold the agreement,” said van Riemsdyk. “We’re just waiting to hear from the owners, but we’re ready to get started.”
SPECTOR’S NOTE: van Riemsdyk’s comments appeared the day before the recent reports on a 56-game schedule commencing Jan. 15. We’ll learn in the coming days if the PA will bend or stand firm.
SPORTSNET: Minnesota Wild winger Mats Zuccarello could miss the start of the season and be sidelined for a while following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right arm a few weeks ago. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reported it’s the same arm he broke two seasons ago playing for the Dallas Stars. He played with that discomfort for most of last season.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: That could explain the decline in Zuccarello’s production last season.
THE PROVINCE: The Vancouver Canucks have parted ways with long-time anthem singer Mark Donnelly over his plan to sing at an anti-mask rally today in downtown Vancouver.
The latest on the stalled return-to-play talks between the NHL and NHLPA in today’s morning coffee headlines.
TSN: Darren Dreger reports the NHL still has Jan. 1 as its target date for starting the season but it is looking at a later date. They’re also looking at starting up training camp following the holidays in late December or early January. He also reports league commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr resumed discussions over the weekend and those talks continued on Monday. Dreger suggested a mid-January start is the likely target date.
Dreger also said the players remain unhappy over the league’s proposals for increased escrow and salary deferral rates. Some of them wonder why Bettman did offer up some sort of give-back from the owners before requesting another increase in those rates. He believes there’s still a lot of work to be done to reach common ground.
Jeff O’Neill ultimately believes the players will accept the league’s requests. Otherwise, they won’t play and won’t get paid for this season.
OTTAWA SUN: Bruce Garrioch cites NHL insider John Shannon reporting sources from the NHL and NHLPA confirm there have been discussions but no progress on revisiting this summer’s Memorandum of Understanding on the CBA extension.
Facing the prospect of starting the season with empty arenas due to COVID-19, the league is requesting another $300 million in savings from the players in the form of increased escrow and salary deferral rates. Garrioch points out the players have every right to kick the can down the road on escrow, but if they don’t more now they’ll have to do so in the latter years of the deal.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: The good news is that at least Bettman and Fehr have resumed discussions. Dreger’s report also indicates the league is leaning toward a more realistic potential start date most of us anticipated for the season.
TORONTO STAR: Kevin McGran predicts it will take four weeks from the time an agreement is reached until the puck drops on the season. If it’s reached by early January the season could open in early February and conclude in late June.
McGran also reports Bettman kept the NHL owners out of this summer’s negotiations on the MOU extension to the CBA. The owners unanimously endorse it and it’s believed some did so solely on the commissioner’s recommendation. Having read the MOU after its ratification, some owners aren’t happy with it.
It could cost each team $150 million in operating costs for this season. Some owners have apparently told Bettman they would be better off financially by not playing. The players, meanwhile, aren’t happy with the league’s requests to lower their salaries from the agreed-upon 72 percent for this season to 55 percent.
McGran believes the players will ultimately bend because the CBA allows the league to suspend a season based on circumstances beyond its control. It’s in the financial best interest of the players to play.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Under the CBA, the players are entitled to no more than 50 percent of hockey-related revenue. Thus, it would make sense for the players to give back now to avoid paying back more down the road.
The New York Post’s Larry Brooks last week argued the adoption of annual escrow caps coupled with unlinking the cap from actual HRR ended the assurance of a 50-50 split. That’s likely coming from the PA given Brooks’ sources within the union. I doubt that’s going to fly with the NHL owners.
The consensus among pundits is the players will have to agree to Bettman’s requests but the league will have to include a sweetener to make it enticing to the players. Plenty of suggestions have been bandied about but paying back the deferred salary with interest appears the best option. We’ll see what transpires in the coming weeks.
THE PROVINCE: Dr. Brian Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, believes the NHL could minimize the type of COVID-19 outbreaks currently seen among NFL teams. He advocates adopting the NBA’s strict training camp virus prevention and detection protocols.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: The league crafted its strict test policies for this summer’s return-to-play postseason plan by observing what worked and what didn’t with other sports leagues. I daresay they’ll follow the same plan to make adjustments for a regular-season schedule.