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The 3 Biggest Obstacles in NHL Return Negotiations



The coronavirus is bearing down on the NHL like a freight train racing through the tunnel. What seemed easier just a couple of weeks ago now has the specter of a nationwide lockdown attached. The NHL and NHLPA have begun negotiations on the 2020-21 NHL Return to Play framework, but there are three primary obstacles to overcome.

They won’t be easy, and they may get even more difficult in the coming weeks.

Owners asked NHL players for significant concessions to launch the NHL postseason bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. Players agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two to four years and a 20% escrow holdback this coming season.

As one stern player agent drew the analogy to PHN in our first Off the Record column, “How many employees bailed our their businesses?”

The NHL and NHLPA are again trying to figure out how to launch their season and salvage hundreds of millions of dollars. Through the past two weeks, the National Hockey Now family has been in touch with agents, players, and NHL executives. You’ve seen many of their quotes in our “Off the Record” columns.

Even this week, a high-ranking NHL executive repeated the league’s public stance for a Jan. 1 start. And one note to keep in mind, NBC owns the NHL broadcast right and the Olympics broadcast rights. The Olympics begin on July 15, so the NHL had better wrap it up by then or risk hoisting a Stanley Cup on CNBC or to an online audience only.

3 Biggest Hurdles for the 2020-21 NHL Season

1.  Player Salaries

If you’re keeping score, the players are already giving up 20% of their salary this season. According to the NY Post’s Larry Brooks, owners have also told players to expect an ask for a 13% deferral.

That’s a 33% drop in paychecks, but that ask was made when something close to an 82-game schedule seemed possible. Now, the damned virus is threatening statewide shutdowns, and President-elect Joe Biden’s task force seems to have signaled a nationwide lockdown is possible when Biden sits behind the Resolute desk. However, Biden aides attempted to downplay the possibility.

The owners’ request for a 13% salary deferral may not be nearly enough for the owners to make this work. Suddenly, a 48-game schedule doesn’t seem to be the low end, but a significant number to achieve. Will the players agree to a season with even more than 13% salary deferral?

2. Revenues, Revenues, Revenues

You may have seen the stories this week. The Tampa Bay Lightning slashed 30 jobs from their payroll. The Edmonton Oilers were sued for two unpaid hotel bills.

It’s November, but there’s no hockey and no revenue streams.

According to President Trump, even as Pfizer and Moderna race to the finish line with their respective vaccines, a widespread consumption may not be achieved until April.

No fans in the stands mean no money in the pockets. Ticket revenues provide roughly 40% of a team’s sustenance.

How will NHL owners get through a season in which half of the games played have no fans? How will they generate enough revenue to pay the players?

And, how will owners react to paying players 2/3 salary despite getting only 58% of the games, and many of those games without fans?

3. COVID, That Damned COVID-19

Perhaps some of this could be a moot point if the United States goes on lockdown in the weeks leading to vaccine dissemination. Without special dispensations to travel or creating a bubble, the league may be shuttered with the rest of us.

On Wednesday night, Pierre LeBrun of TSN and The Athletic reported the NHL Return to Play committee included 16 players. Among those players are former Pittsburgh Penguins Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey.

The two sides will begin to hammer out an agreement, even as the COVID-19 virus again rages and states are implementing stricter protocols. You may have heard Pennsylvania is demanding citizens quarantine after crossing state lines.

Such measures would mean any visiting team to Pittsburgh would be stuck here for two weeks, unless the Penguins played the Philadelphia Flyers six times in a row (We’re unsure why it would be OK to travel to Philadelphia but not Columbus, but that’s a discussion for a different day).

This season won’t be easy. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly had, perhaps, their finest hour last June when they shepherded the first NHL Return to Play. The RTP was incredibly well done and successful. PHN will attest first hand, as one of five U.S. journalists who covered the event in Toronto. It was perfectly executed. 

Can 16 players, the NHLPA negotiators, and the NHL owners agree on damaged economics, salaries and find a way to live within changing COVID-19 policies?

Stay tuned.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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