It’s not likely to be a quiet holiday week for the NHL and its Players’ Association.
When (best-case scenario) or if (worst-case) the next season will actually begin is likely to be a lot clearer over the next seven to 10 days.
The league has said — repeatedly — it is targeting around Jan. 1 to start its 2020-21 season after concluding the COVID-19 pandemic-delayed postseason in September. To do so, a financial understanding between the NHL and the NHLPA must be reached shortly in order for two-week training camps to open in mid-December since players traveling back to their team’s cities will have to quarantine for two weeks.
To resume play after the regular season was halted on March 12, the NHL and the NHLPA hastily and remarkably negotiated a new, six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Hockey-related revenue — split 50/50 between the owners and players — will be way down for the foreseeable future with either no fans in the stands or limited attendance. The salary cap remains flat at $81.5 million, perhaps for multiple seasons. In July, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed the players would defer 10% percent of their salary in 2020-21 and escrow would be capped at 20% for the upcoming season, then between 14-18% in 2021-22, 10% in 2022-23 and at 6% for the remaining three seasons of the new CBA.
That was July.
This is November.
Several reports this week indicated the NHL has now requested further salary deferrals from the NHLPA, perhaps up to an additional 16%, as well as a request to raise the escrow percentage over the life of the new CBA.
Not surprisingly, the NHLPA, believing it had already negotiated a new deal with the league, did not respond with enthusiasm to the new asks.
So now hockey risks being where Major League Baseball was before it began its 60-game regular season — in an unseemly battle over money before play can resume. As the sides showed they understood in July, there’s not much tolerance for that kind of argument these days.
One difference between the NHL and MLB, though, is the league is seeking additional salary deferrals and not to have the contracts prorated for a shorter regular season. The deferrals, at some point, will find their way back to the players.
That’s also one reason to believe this is a fixable situation, regardless of the initial shock and anger on the NHLPA’s part. So is the fact that both NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHLPA adamantly want games to resume.
Still, the clock is ticking quickly and a Jan. 1 start date may need to be pushed back to around Feb. 1.
A realistic starting date for the next season should be much clearer by the time all the Thanksgiving leftovers are eaten.
Road less traveled?
The Islanders, Rangers and Devils’ close geographic proximity annually affords the Metropolitan area teams the least taxing road schedules in the NHL. That may be even more true depending on how the league structures its next season.
Hub cities are one option, in which case every team's travel would be fairly equitable. But another option is for teams to play in their home arenas and for the NHL to limit travel in other ways.
Temporary re-alignment is being considered because of the pandemic, with the seven Canadian teams almost certainly grouped together and playing exclusively within their own division with travel restrictions still in effect along the U.S.-Canada border.
And that could lead to three U.S. divisions playing likewise self-contained schedules to reduce travel, at least to start the season.
Under that scenario — and regardless of which teams comprise the rest of the revamped division — the Islanders, Rangers and Devils would play a much higher percentage of games against each other than usual. Throw in the Philadelphia Flyers, who are a geographical lock to be in a division with those three and that’s a lot of the shortest road trips possible in the NHL (the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings would be the only other comparable).
Kim Ng’s hiring as the Miami Marlins general manager on Nov. 13, becoming the first female GM in either MLB, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL and the first Asian-American GM in the MLB was, of course, a historical moment and one that hopefully sets the foundation for further advances in equality.
More overlooked but no less important was Brett Peterson’s hiring as assistant GM by the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. He is believed to be the first Black assistant GM in NHL history.
The former agent called it a "special day for myself and my family," in a statement released by the Panthers.
Like Ng, Peterson’s hiring is hopefully just a first step.
It’s even more important given the Hockey Diversity Alliance, formed in June to "eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey," announced in October it had not received the support it wanted from the NHL and would operate independently of the league.