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The Obstacles of Next Season: what’s in the way, and if we’ll even have a 2020-21 NHL Season

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All indication says we’ve got a long way to go, with not a lot of time to get there.

Stanley Cup 1902 Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As we inch closer to the increasingly unrealistic projection of the new year’s starting date for the NHL, the question has become increasingly less “When will the date be, if not January 1st?“ and more “is this date going to happen at all?”

Now talks worryingly stalled last week, but have thankfully begun to pick up again. But there are a lot of major issues following both the PA and the league’s ownership, and we have to make sure we know what's in the way before we can get to the 2020-21 season. So let's discuss the problems, shall we?

1 - The Ongoing Pandemic

One day we’ll all look back on this time in our lives and...weep. We will weep.

Anyway, you know the drill. The NHL encompasses 24 states, and 5 of Canada’s provinces, and all of ‘em have the ‘Rona running rampant. There’s logistics on top of logistics to keep people from getting the virus, and they gotta implement it with several different levels of COVID social distancing enforcement present pretty much...everywhere? (Quebec won’t even let the Habs practice rink be open right now, contrasted with the current Stanley Cup winners and also the Panthers, who could theoretically have autograph sessions after practice.) It will be a problem that the NBA faces as well, and since the NHL is the great follower, it’s likely to follow their protocols closely. Some teams like...Boston, for example, have suggested going outside for an entire season.

An NHL marketer’s wet dream, perhaps, but feasible for maybe a game or two before the reality of outside ice (it’s bad) has to come.

The bubble worked for the playoffs, but doing a bubble for a season is another thing entirely. And they gotta get all that together so that the season can be done before...

2 - The Projected 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, and more importantly, the TV time.

Say what you will of the myriad sporting competitions that were expected to be played in Tokyo over the course of this summer (Yes. I know. You can come back once you’re done walking around your house screaming “Oh my GOD”), fact is nobody, not even the NFL, would be stupid enough to involve themselves in competing against the Olympics on TV, which effectively puts a stranglehold on everything else once it gets on.

It would be especially stupid for the NHL, since NBC happens to have near exclusive rights in the US to air them. Meaning that no matter what, the season has to be hammered out and done with a Stanley Cup Winner before July 23rd of 2021, as has been the goal from day one.

But the big problem, as it always is, is that there’s a fundamental divide between both sides of this particular argument, usually based on the same thing.

2 - For the Players? Money.

As multiple outlets have reported, the Players and the Owners aren’t getting along these days for the reason of...

[spins wheel of excuses, lands on a tiny sliver of something, has to double check the results.]

...An entirely reasonable and sensible response to “we want to defer over half your paycheck.” Huh. The wheel must be defective, this thing is supposed to give bad excuses.

So yeah, the latest ask of the NHL and Bettman has been an increase on the earlier agreed upon deferred payments as well as an increase in escrow (up from 20% to 25%) that was supposed to begin falling by this year. It can either be the escrow going up first and then the payments, or a sharp deferment, combined by kicking the escrow timeline down the pike like a can, and keeping the cap flat. Understandably for players, this has largely been a non-starter answer.

For most players at or around the $3 million USD average of NHL contracts, it’s a bit of a drop. For players making at or around less than a million, they could possibly end up being paid under the league minimum. And that is kind of a problem for the them! Because a lot of the guys who’ve come together to represent the league that aren’t the PA rep Fehr? Not all of them are the McDavids of the world. Oh sure, we got some big earners here: Giroux, Backes, Scheifele, Abdelkader, Cole, Eller, and and Kreider in there, but there are plenty of guys who are not making that kind of player’s money.

Guys like Biega or Savard for example could end up seriously hosed if they agree to it, going well under league minimum, and if things drag on long enough it could get even worse. Of course, nobody’s going to be jumping down into the “Construction Site Manager” salaries, but these guys don’t all live in penthouses and mansions. Many of them just need enough money to keep the house lights on.

But if you think the Owners are doing this out of greed, well...you’re half right, but...

3 - For the Owners? Also money, and also that they didn’t do the reading.

While previous work stoppages have had ownership as the truly terrifying “unified front of multi-millionaires or at least people who have enough liquid assets to keep that illusion going”, this one doesn’t appear to have the same feeling of a league ready to just go back and play and get a win over their peons.

After all, even in states where things like social distancing and safety are considered enemies of freedom, the NHL would probably begin their season without fans in the stands being mandatory for all 31 teams. This would be rough for a league that is as driven by it’s gate, perhaps more than any other league. The owners know that, and they’re not happy about it at all.

But it feels like they should know that already, right? I mean, they signed that Memo of Understanding, didn’t they? Doesn’t that mean you’d have to...I dunno...accidentally read any of it?

Well, according to at least one person...quite a few of them didn’t, taking it on faith with Gary. And they’re pissed that they suddenly agreed to a lot of things that will, under conservative estimates, ask them to pay roughly $300 million or so to get the season up and running. Some of whom, especially from smaller markets (and that doesn’t just mean southern ones), feel they’d be better off not even playing at all if they can’t collect gate receipts from an NHL season, truncated now as it might be. A novel solution suggested was going after Seattle’s dues early, but that seems to be blue skying.

That’s not a good place to be if you’re Gary Bettman, as part of his skill as commissioner, if he’s not good at anything else, is to get the business stuff over and done with quickly if he wants to do it. Everybody eventually falls in line with him...but only if everyone’s goals align.

Right now, Gary doesn’t have that, which could lead to...

4- Bettman lightly tapping Article 5 like a button to jettison the whole season into space

The nuclear option. Bettman, the board of governors, and the league can decide for itself whether or not it’s going to be playing hockey, according to article 5 of the current CBA.

This Force Majeur puts a pin on a lot of player’s necks, as no matter what a lot of players will probably need that money (think of say...the third and fourth liners of the world, many of whom are not young guys), or will want that last kick at the can before it’s time to hang it up.

And of course, if they decide that compensation for having swollen legs and hips and bruises (at the very, absolute least) means more than playing...nobody gets anything. Everyone loses. And it wouldn’t even be the end of it if the PA’s lawyers decide to get involved.

And suddenly, the World Juniors looks like the event of the season.

Of course, there’s still hope.

As per usual, the league could see how the NBA does over the course of their first couple of weeks (which is on the 22nd), get panicked over the lack of games on TV and how much their engagement has plummeted (y’know, more than the actual marketing and social ills the league continues to drag his ass on), and everybody comes together to cobble together a deal that satisfies absolutely nobody, but gets everyone out on the ice. Or some of the richer owners decide to ““““““““““““““““““boldly”””””””””””””””””” step up and take on the financial burden in exchange for some ludicrous setup the next time the CBA is up for discussion. The players could always have their oldest members balk at it for one last shot at the cup. There are a million little things that could add up to a season announcement at some point over this month.

But the current plan, as it stands, isn’t gonna get us there. We’re gonna keep getting caught up in the whole money thing, and the idea of what a contract is, and we’re going to be doing this for however long either side wants to do this, with Bettman in the middle.

So if you’re feeling a little bit nervous about a season, don’t forget any of the hope.

But also don’t be surprised if these obstacles mean we’re waiting a good long time for NHL action.


Poll

Will there be a 2020-21 NHL Season?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Yes, there’s too much money at stake
    (74 votes)
  • 51%
    No, one or both sides won’t cave on their demands
    (79 votes)
153 votes total Vote Now