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Bob McKenzie: NHL and NHLPA are in “unprecedented” levels of negotiation

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The choice of hub cities — one in Canada, now greenlit by the government — is the least of the issues they face.

Kate Frese / SBNation

Bob McKenzie, speaking to TSN’s Overdrive, has a report on the state of the NHL’s return to play process.

Late Thursday night, the Canadian Press reported that the government of Canada has issued an order in council to allow a hub city to be located in Vancouver, Edmonton or Toronto. But from what McKenzie has to say, the choice of hub city is the least of the work being done.

The NHL and the NHLPA are negotiating the Phase 3 (training camp) and Phase 4 (game play) protocols at the same time as they are negotiating a new CBA. From McKenzie’s comments, getting that CBA at least to the “memo of understanding” stage by the end of this month is not just a thing they’d like to do, but a serious goal. Pierre LeBrun has reported on this in recent days, but this report much more clearly lays out the time frame the two sides are confined by. In short: July 1 is looming, and decisions need to be made.

McKenzie called this an unprecedented level of negotiation, well in excess for chaos factor and intensity to the 2004-2005 negotiations that ended in a lost season. It’s also clear that players other than just the 31 team representatives are routinely involved in and connected to the negotiating.

In 31 Thoughts yesterday, Elliotte Friedman, named the negotiating committee, which he says may encompass both negotiations (the CBA and the Phase 3/4 Protocols):

According to sources, the NHLPA has named its 12 negotiation committee members: Justin Abdelkader (Detroit); Ian Cole (Colorado); JT Compher (Colorado); Andrew Copp (Winnipeg); Lars Eller (Washington); Justin Faulk (St. Louis); Nick Foligno (Columbus); Ron Hainsey (Ottawa); Zach Hyman (Toronto); Anders Lee (Islanders); Darnell Nurse (Edmonton) and Yannick Weber (Nashville). Any other player who wishes to participate in these conversations can do so.

That list includes two European players, which is very important, as travel back from Europe is a special concern, as is the right of players to simply refuse to play.

Roman Polak made some modest waves recently when he said he doesn’t want to come back ever. He is likely not the only expiring UFA who wants to stay in Europe and begin a European season at something like a normal time: Most leagues have set tentative start dates of September or October.

Meanwhile, McKenzie casually refers to January as the start date for what would be the 2021 season, no hyphen required. He’s not the first to do that, and a simple look at the calendar should reveal that by the time the 2020 Stanley Cup is handed out, assuming that works out, the off-season will run up to Christmas, and it seems inevitable that next season will be next year.

The Overdrive discussion covers the issue of the range of feelings of players in the NHL about returning to play. Roman Polak isn’t the only one who simply does not want to play at all before next year, and there are a group of players that want answers and assurances about procedures that haven’t been decided yet. They likely want certainty about things no one can provide them. But McKenzie believes, absent a survey of the league, that the majority are on board with the general concept of returning to play.

One reason for that is that they have to balance their own financial interests against their safety, just like everyone else does when making personal decisions about returning to work. Unless your job is one where you have never had a choice.

McKenzie lays out the broad strokes of how the intense financial impact of the disruption of this season, and the future uncertainty of the NHL (when they’ll be selling tickets is anyone’s guess), affects not just the teams, but the players. There is an expectation that the new CBA may cap escrow (the amount deducted from each player’s salary to be held in a fund until the real revenue split to be shared out between players and owners is known). But if some of the more worst-case scenarios for revenue projection come to pass, that escrow cap might not cover the shortfall between contract face values and actual revenue. If so, that shortfall might be amortized over several years, so that in addition to future escrow, the player’s salary will be whittled down by that repayment as well.

On top of that, there is an indication that the owners are looking for a deferral of salary from the players for next season to help them meet costs while their revenue is — in some cases — virtually non existent.

From 31 Thoughts:

I’ve heard from multiple people that other teams [than Buffalo] are considering “slimming down” their operations. There are legit worries about what could happen by June 30, because that’s the day of the year that NHL contracts “end.”

And specifically for team employees:

There is talk about shorter terms and greater “force majeure” language, which allows for the breaking of a contract due to an “Act of God,” or, say, a pandemic. There’s also been discussion in the U.S. of making more employees “at will” — meaning they can be terminated at any time without explanation, as long as it is not an illegal firing. (This also allows employees to quit more easily, too.)

While a popular view is that every NHL team has a room full of money their billionaire owner can go sleep on whenever they like, the reality is that some teams are part of giant sports empires — every bit of which is seeing huge revenue shortfalls. Other teams are owned more as content filler for the main business which is the arena itself — and every bit of that revenue is gone. Some are owned by media companies as content providers for broadcast — and every bit of that revenue is gone.

It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that parts of the NHL will struggle to meet costs. I think we all expect the Leafs to be able to fork over that alarming total of signing bonus money due on July 1, if that date isn’t moved, but other teams will be dipping into debt to do that and facing six months before they can sell a ticket.

From McKenzie’s comments, the players are sobering up to this reality, and all of them who fought tooth and nail, or rolled over politely, to sign massive contracts are watching the real value of those contracts rapidly deflate. Even deferring some salary to the future costs the player real value over the life of his contract.

With that thought in mind, many players are asking questions about their personal safety depending on where they live and where their team is located. McKenzie mentioned Florida, Arizona and Texas as places where the progress of the Coronavirus infections seems to be raging unchecked.

He also explained a change in the way the NHL will report positive tests in Phase 2, of which there have been three so far: one in Boston, one in Pittsburgh and a staff member in Arizona. The NHL is going to report positive Coronavirus tests by announcing the total number of tests that are positive on some undetermined schedule. The team won’t be identified. The NHL is trying to walk a line between privacy of the individual athletes and the right of all of us to understand if this program is working safely.

In Leafs-specific news, McKenzie reiterated that the Leafs are the gung-ho team with nearly a full compliment of players already taking part in the voluntary training. They have four groups of six players, and he said two more are in “quarantine” (14-day self-isolation) after arriving from Europe. Frederik Andersen is in California and has been for a week, and Auston Matthews is still in Scottsdale, Arizona.

As for the exemption the Canadian government is giving the NHL teams to employ some kind of cohort quarantine to avoid the isolation period, no one knows if that will only apply to the hub cities or if that can be used by the Leafs now to bring in their last wayward players.

One final note, somewhat related to this:

McKenzie seems to be of the opinion that, if the NHL and NHLPA are almost at an agreement but need more time, some kind of delay into July is possible. However, expect much more on this over the next 10 days. Including more talk about escrow and revenue projections than any of us really want.


On the hub cities issue, this CBC article goes deep on all the options:

Update: Sportsnet weighs in:

While they also cover today’s news about positive tests in Tampa, they discuss the CBA and return to play negotiations. They (Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston) believe that the two votes are tied into one bundle. They are saying the players need that CBA in a state near completion in order to vote for the return to play.

Johnston says that he think that people are now actually willing to discuss the idea of two Canadian hub cities, although he thinks Vegas is still a strong choice.

This vote or votes when it comes will be the full player membership, not the executive board, and they state what McKenzie said: the target date is the end of June.