If you were hoping the NHL would anywhere near a consensus, or even an idea, on how and when to return to play, you’re probably a pretty disappointed hockey fan right now. After weeks of stops and starts, just how much work is left to do was made clear when commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the league’s board of governors Monday.
Those involved in the calls have maintained that Bettman has leaned toward one format or another in recent weeks, but remains non-committal on everything. The flavor of the week is a 24-team play-in tournament in two hub cities, but that could all change. Understandably, the goalposts are being moved on an almost daily basis, which is the reality under which the league has to operate because of the unpredictability of so many things that are out of its control. The day after Bettman spoke to the board, USA and Canada agreed to keep their borders closed to all non-essential traffic until at least June 21. So even if they open on that date, players would still have to quarantine in their home cities for two weeks, then hold a three-week training camp, which brings us to the end of July.
We are clearly running out of runway here, which makes the league’s unwillingness to commit a little frustrating. It’s a little bewildering that the league hasn’t at least put out some sort of framework of how the rest of the regular season and playoffs would look if it can return to play. The timing is obviously out of the league’s hands, but there is a growing sentiment that the NHL should get something out soon, with all qualifiers and caveats attached to it. That would at least keep fans engaged until they know whether or not the league can pull this off from a logistical standpoint.
But there was one nugget that emerged from Monday’s call, and it is not insignificant. In fact, it’s fairly huge. Bettman said on the call, as he has on others, that the NHL Players’ Association is working hand-in-hand with the league, “and he said it’s the best he’s seen in his career,” said a person who was on the call.
At first blush, you might think the bar for that particular statement is pretty low. Bettman has been NHL commissioner for more than 27 years now and relations with the players have been pockmarked with clashes. Under Bettman’s tenure the league has locked its players out three times, including the 2004-05 season that was wiped out. But to hear that the two sides are this much in lockstep during the COVID-19 pandemic gives hockey fans one fewer headache.
There’s still a long way to go, but if this whole scheme gets derailed, it almost certainly won’t be because the owners and players could not work out a deal to get back to work. It will be because of a second wave of the virus or simply because it logistically could not be pulled off. Much of this harmony has to do with the league’s Return-to-Play Committee, which is meeting every other day in an effort to come up with a plan. The committee includes Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and senior vice-presidents Colin Campbell and Steve Hatze Petros on the NHL side and executive director Don Fehr, special assistant Mathieu Schneider, general counsel Don Zavelo and divisional representative Steve Webb on the NHLPA side.
But more importantly, it includes five players, including league heavy hitters Connor McDavid, John Tavares and Mark Scheifele. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of labor relations in the NHL knows that superstar players have long excused themselves from taking an active part in their union and in taking on the league. It makes a difference when the NHL is trying to implement something and the people on the league’s side of the table have to look into the eyes of the best players on the planet, rather than fourth-line wingers and seventh defensemen.
It’s important in both the short- and long-term. Because not only does the NHL and NHLPA have to find some way to salvage this season, they’re also faced with some huge obstacles in putting on a credible season in 2020-21, whenever that starts. There won’t be mass gatherings until either a vaccine or a drug to combat the virus is found, and even then it might be difficult to convince health authorities to approve big crowds, and for hockey fans to be part of them.
There will be no fans in the seats this season and there’s a good chance there will be only a fraction of the previous crowds on hand next season. For a league where roughly 75% of revenues come from gates and related activities, that could be a crippling blow. It could also make the escrow rates players are paying now look like tip money.
The NHL and NHLPA have a lot of work to do this year and beyond, particularly when it comes to forging a new collective bargaining agreement in what might be a very different economic landscape. They’re going to need all the goodwill they can get.
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