How the coronavirus pandemic has given leverage to NHL players

NHL's current plan to resume season (0:50)

Emily Kaplan breaks down the NHL's tentative plan to finish the season in four hub cities, as well as ideas for staging the draft. (0:50)

It only took 27 years, a few lockouts and a global coronavirus pandemic, but National Hockey League players might finally have some leverage against commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners.

As the NHL considers any and all plans to restart its season this summer, there are two essential entities that need to sign off on any format on which it lands. The first, obviously, are the local and federal officials who control the restrictions on travel, mass gatherings and essential businesses. One assumes that by July, the league can find four states with relaxed restrictions, suitable hockey facilities and four-star accommodations to stage its "divisional villages" and complete the 2019-20 season.

That is, if the other entity agrees to it: the NHL Players' Association.

"Nothing is happening without the players signing off on it," one NHL agent said this week.

They have to approve the training period leading up to the season, as well as the schedule, the format, the playoffs and the calendar, so as not to impact next season. They have to approve which COVID-19 tests are administered and how often. They have to give the OK to the health and safety considerations inside the arenas, from social distancing guidelines to what happens when one of their peers tests positive. They have to sign off on where they're living, and for how long. Once the Stanley Cup is skated inside the cavernous void of an empty arena, they'll have approved how long the offseason lasts before the start of next season, and approved what next season's truncated schedule looks like.

And they can say "no" to some of it, any of it or all of it.

Usually when they say "no," the players are portrayed as the greedy ones, the catalysts for games being postponed and arena doors being locked. This time if they say "no," it's for their health, the health of their loved ones and a general feeling of unease about returning under perilous conditions. That's going to be a lot harder to demonize.

"Some players could be away from their families for three to four months and I think that's way too much," said Montreal Canadiens center Phillip Danault recently. "And I'm not the only one thinking like that, I'm sure."

This is why the players are being invited into the process. The joint NHL/NHLPA "return to play" conference calls feature contributions from active players John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Mark Scheifele, Ron Hainsey and Connor McDavid; for the latter, it continues an uncommon political involvement for a star player of just 23 years of age.

When the players speak honestly on their pessimism about the restart, they're being heard. It started with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty's doubts that the season would be completed. They were echoed by Danault recently. Like Doughty's Kings, the Canadiens are currently out of the playoff picture, and Danault wouldn't mind if the season were canceled in order to focus on next season.

"All those teams that are in the playoffs, they would probably say they want to finish the season in some way. But for us, the health for everyone, the best way to finish this would be to concentrate on next year. We keep pushing everything, and I think it would affect next year too much if we started in November," he said on a recent conference call.

His teammate Brendan Gallagher also offered some pessimism.

"Any hockey being played after July 1 has to be approved by the players' association. I'm assuming this scenario came from the owners, and that it's something they would prefer. Our side hasn't really talked about it. For us right now, it always comes back to the same thing: It's about winning. If this is going to interfere with our ability to play next year, when we have a chance, I'd rather continue my training," he said.

Although, as Doughty admitted, Gallagher might have a different outlook if Montreal were suddenly a playoff team.

"If it's a situation where you have a chance to play and they expand the playoff bracket, then obviously I'll be all for it. But I'd rather be here and getting my body ready. The players that have a chance to win, they want to play no matter what," he said.

It's here that you start to understand why the NHLPA, even with leverage, can't be trusted to get on the same page. It's hundreds of players with competing ambitions vs. 31 owners who, for the most part, have a singular mindset.

"You're talking about some players that are 19-year-old single guys that have been gaming the last couple of weeks. And then you're talking about some players in their mid- to late-30s with three kids, and they have to worry about schooling and things like that. You have guys traveling back from Europe, and they're probably going to need a couple of weeks of quarantine after that. There are so many variables," Washington Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon told ESPN recently.

"We're really trying to make things work with the owners. We understand there's a new CBA on the horizon, with [NHLPA executive director] Don [Fehr] and Gary [Bettman] talking a lot."

Indeed there is, and those talks have continued throughout the year. Let's not be naïve about this: Every time the owners and players are negotiating something, it inevitably gets tethered to the next CBA. Remember when the Olympic debate went from a referendum on the IOC's avarice to a handy way to force the players into extending the CBA?

In the end, it's about the money, as it is with this NHL season restart.

"The only reason to come back and play is the cash," said a source on the players' side.

The owners need the regular season completed to fulfill the obligations to their local broadcasting partners and sponsors. They need the playoffs played to fulfill those same obligations with national partners -- Bettman said recently that failure to complete the Stanley Cup Playoffs would mean the NHL owed its broadcast partners credits against next season's payment. All of it is an attempt to tie a tourniquet around the revenue loss of this paused season.

Obviously, the players are going to take it on the chin when it comes to escrow due to the revenue shortfall this season, and likely next season. They know that. Any remedy for that escrow hit is probably being tied to a CBA extension, as potential incentive to get it done.

But again, the players find themselves with some leverage here. The linkage under the financial system the owners fought for 15 years ago means that the salary cap is tied to revenue. When the cash flow drops, so does the cap. The best-case scenario for next season is that it remains at $81.5 million, despite revenues plummeting. For that to happen, the NHLPA has to sign off on that artificial emergency ceiling being established.

So what if they don't and the salary cap drops?

Well, then there are a few options. There could be a slew of compliance buyouts from teams to rid themselves of bloated contracts, but that's not going to happen when so many owners are in dire financial situations already. It would be calamitous.

The NHL could attempt to institute a salary rollback, which is something to which the NHLPA would have to agree.

And they are not signing off on that.

"In that hypothetical, we would first have to know the financial situation of each team in detail, before you can even bite into that situation," Fehr told ESPN recently. "Secondly, in one sense, anything like a rollback is simply a substitute for escrow. If I tell you I'm going to pay you $10 with a dollar escrow or I'm going to pay you $9 with no escrow, the result is the same. So you would look at it. But players, historically since 2004-05, react very negatively to the notion of a rollback."

No kidding.

The salary cap is just another aspect of these uncertain times that will require a partnership between the players and owners, the levels of which we may never have seen under Bettman. Honestly, before COVID-19, it felt like we were getting there. The CBA wasn't reopened. Everyone was making money. Our friends in the NBA and NFL found labor peace in a relatively bloodless manner.

That might still be the case. Both the players and the owners have said the lines of communication have been encouragingly open as they work together to navigate uncharted waters together.

Maybe that results in an unprecedented partnership that leads not only to the safe and healthy rebirth of the season, but a CBA extension that helps carry the league through its recovery. Maybe one side will end up using this moment to pressure the other into acquiescing on collective bargaining issues. And maybe, if they can close ranks and seize the moment, this time it's the players with the high ground.

Jersey Fouls

From B.C. comes a J.F.:

This Roberto Luongo Frankenjersey celebrates both his legacy with the Vancouver Canucks and with the national team. It's a rather ugly combination, as the logos don't sync up at all and the away and home jerseys don't mesh. But is the most Canadian thing we've seen since the Gord Downie cameo on "Trailer Park Boys."

Three things about that proposed NHL playoff format

1. Mark Spector of Sportsnet reported this week that if the regular season isn't restarted, "the most popular playoff scenario" is one in which "the top 6 teams from each division meet in one city. They would open with best-of-three series between the No. 1 and 2 seeds (to decide a division winner), while No. 3 meets 6 and 4 meets 5 for the right to keep playing.

(An NHL source pushed back rather hard on that "most popular" part, but we digress.)

We can argue about the moral implications of restarting the season in empty buildings during a global pandemic, but we can all agree that these are unprecedented, difficult times; we can also acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity on display from those in the league that are trying to find a way to complete the season.

There is no perfect solution, no flawless methodology.

So let's start with some praise for this concept. It does provide a chance for teams to get some games under their belts before entering what we imagine are best-of-seven series in a 16-team Stanley Cup Playoff tournament. The players have stressed how vital that is, with McDavid going as far to say that dropping the Oilers and Flames into a seven-game series without a ramp-up would lead to their respective AHL teams finishing that series due to injuries.

It also expands the playoff field, which we feel is vital to any completion of the 2019-20 season and, frankly, should be the playoff format going forward. It's going to be a 32-team league. They really need to send out more than 16 invitations to the dance.

If the summertime restart tournament is a Trojan horse for an expanded playoff format, then I raise my glass to honor that subterfuge -- as long as we're talking about play-in games and series that lead into the perfect 16-team Stanley Cup tournament.

2. OK, with the sunshine out of the way: What an absolutely atrocious idea this is.

Under this plan, the Anaheim Ducks (.472 points percentage) and the Buffalo Sabres (.493) would be playoff teams. The New York Rangers (.564) and Chicago Blackhawks (.514) would not. It's true that the inequity of weaker divisions producing playoff teams and stronger divisions getting jobbed is a tale as old as time in the National Hockey League. But the league is literally inventing this playoff format out of thin air! There are no divisional restrictions! They can put in whoever they want, wherever they want! They just made it up!

(We've seen some complaining that the Ducks and Sabres are being robbed of draft lottery chances by being thrust into the playoffs. But we have to assume the lottery is going to be held based on regular-season points percentage, so their playoff status won't affect it. Although it would open the door to that nightmare scenario voiced by some general managers, in which the same team that wins the first overall pick also wins the Stanley Cup, even if the odds are "'Paul Blart' wins Best Picture" long.)

3. Imagine being the Toronto Maple Leafs (.579), Pittsburgh Penguins (.623), Dallas Stars (.594) or Vancouver Canucks (.565). You've worked hard for months to earn the third seed in your division, thereby ensuring yourself a spot in the 16-team tournament for the Stanley Cup. Yet under this plan, while the top two teams in the division get to volley for serve, you're suddenly playing for your postseason lives against the Sabres, Blue Jackets (.579), Wild (.558) and Ducks in a "first team to two wins" series. That's a bad bounce in overtime and one stellar game from an opposing goalie and -- poof -- the season is toast; and for Toronto and Vancouver, against two teams that are 13 and 12 points out of a playoff spot, respectively.

As we said, there are no perfect solutions to a season interrupted by a global pandemic. But good Lord Stanley, there have to be better ones than this.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Two great discussions this week on the podcast. We welcomed agent Kurt Overhardt to discuss his "exception player" plan that would allow teams to sign stars to huge contracts and not have them count against the cap. Plus our old pal Chris Johnston of Sportsnet joins us to discuss the Blackhawks' front office moves and the NHL season restart. Stream it here, and don't forget to subscribe and review!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: John McDonough

None of us know why the Chicago Blackhawks bid farewell to president John McDonough. Maybe it was a power struggle. Maybe it was just time. Whatever the case, the week was dedicated to celebrating his accomplishments during a remarkable 13-year run at the helm, taking a moribund team and transforming it into one of the most successful and popular franchises in the NHL. Some teams ride a bandwagon when they win. McDonough helped put down the foundation to create generational popularity for the Blackhawks beyond this dynastic run.

Losers: Stan Bowman and Jeremy Colliton

Many in Chicago are speculating that McDonough's dismissal was a signal that no one in the organization is safe after what could be a third straight season out of the playoffs (depending on the postseason format). True, the general manager and coach both received votes of confidence from Rocky Wirtz regarding their status for the 2020-21 season. But so did John McDonough.

Winner: NWHL

The National Women's Hockey League held its draft this week and the presentation was tremendous, as the league invited numerous folks from the hockey world to present the picks on Twitter in video messages. The cameos ranged from Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh to WNBA player Natalie Achonwa to ESPN's own John Buccigross to former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. Really creative, ambitious stuff from the NWHL.

Loser: The NHL's June 5 draft

Pushback be thy name. General managers and hockey pundits drew their arrows and aimed squarely at commissioner Gary Bettman's trial balloon for holding the draft before the completion of the regular season or playoffs. TSN's Bob McKenzie says that while the final decision on the draft should come next week, this plan might be scuttled. That's good news for those of us who like the draft for what it really is: a giant trade bazaar.

Winner: Joel Ward

Three cheers for one of the most well-liked players of the past decade in the NHL, as the former Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks winger -- OK, he spent 11 games with Minnesota, too -- announced his retirement. Ward is an important voice in hockey. He's dealt head-on with racism and racial issues. He's worked hard to create opportunities and representation for young minority players. And he'll continue to do the work.

"Especially after seeing a lot of these instances come up with racism in hockey lately, it's been very disappointing. I guess you can say it's been a switch on for me to try to help others, but also to try and help the league to combat this a little bit better," he said. His message for minority players: "Be proud of who you are."

Loser: Hasty Hate

Did anyone read the fine print on the NHL's new branded face coverings? What was blasted on social media as a money grab for the league actually is benefiting the Feeding America and Food Banks Canada COVID-19 Response Fund with its proceeds. Plus, this is encouraging people to wear face coverings during a pandemic -- some of whom might not otherwise do so. And let's be real: If fans are attending games again in the 2020-21 season and there's not a reliable COVID-19 treatment or vaccine, it may very well be while wearing a face mask. Might as well get used to wearing one now while supporting the team at the supermarket. (But please don't wear the Detroit Red Wings ones: They can't stop anything.)

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