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Photo Credit: Andy Devlin/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

Strife between the NHL and the Players’ Association might put Jan. 1 start date in jeopardy

Since early-October, the NHL has been targeting Jan. 1 as the start date for the 2021 season.

In order for that to happen, the league and the Players’ Association must reach a return-to-play deal by early-December. Teams will need a two-week training camp before the start of the season and the seven non-playoff teams who have been off since mid-March have been promised a three-week camp prior to puck drop.

The clock is ticking and discussions between the NHL and the PA aren’t off to a good start.

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According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the players are “angry” and “feel betrayed” by the two proposals submitted by the league on Wednesday. In these two proposals, the league has reportedly requested increased escrow rates over the final three seasons of the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement extension and increased salary deferral for the 2021 season.

These changes come just four months after the NHL and the PA agreed to an extension of the CBA that took into consideration the inevitable revenue shortfalls owners will face due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some of the responses from players in regards to the two proposals…

“We just made a deal, so why should it be changed?”

“In the past, when we’ve been unhappy with a CBA, we’ve had to live with it.”

“Why did this get proposed so late, we didn’t need a gun to our heads.”

“If we agree to this, who’s to say it won’t happen again?”

“They knew this was going to happen all along, didn’t they?”

The financial aspect of the league’s return-to-play plan is naturally going to be the trickiest issue to navigate. But the fact that it’s late-November and there clearly seems to be hard feelings from the players’ side isn’t a good sign. We haven’t even reached the point of the negotiations that’ll determine the logistics and protocols of executing the 2021 season, which could also be sticky.

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I can understand the owners’ side of the issue. There’s no doubt that teams have taken a massive financial hit due to the pandemic. Unlike the NBA which boasts a colossal television deal, NHL teams rely heavily on gate revenue to make money, so staging a season without fans in the seats is going to be challenging.

The deal is that players and owners have a 50/50 split on hockey-related revenue and the salary cap and player salaries are based on projectred venue. If there’s a shortfall in revenue, the players are going to have to give back some salary in order to compensate for the shortfall from 2019-20 and the impending shortfall next season. Fair enough.

But it’s also easy to see why the players feel blindsided. When the CBA extension was being negotiated, both the NHL and the PA presented best- and worst-case financial scenarios, in which the latter was based around operating without fans in the seats for an entire season.

Why, then, do the players need to suddenly give back more money, even though they reached a deal that considered the worst-case-scenario of not having fans in the seats? Further, it feels as though the owners are shoving the players against the wall here, waiting until late-November, just over a month before the planned start date, to request these givebacks.

The general sentiment from fans tends to be ‘you’re paid millions to play a game, tough it out.’ But it’s important to remember they’re the ones risking getting sick or injured and they ultimately want to be paid the money they agreed to. Also, owners are going to split a $650 million cheque from the Seattle Kraken next season. They shouldn’t be crying poor right now.

To me, this is somewhat reminiscent of Major League Baseball’s return-to-play negotiations back in April and May. The league repeatedly made low-ball offers that ultimately featured the players being asked to give up massive chunks of their already-agreed-upon contracts.

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This dragged on for so long that the season ended up being 60 games (much shorter than the normal 162-game schedule) and the playoffs grew from 10 teams to 16 teams. This was advantageous to the owners because salaries were prorated from 162 games to 60 games and players aren’t paid in the playoffs so that added wild-card round helped offset lost revenue from the season.

With that in mind, I wonder if the league’s long-game here is to make offers to the players that they know they’ll reject in order to stall and ultimately come to a deal later on when they can do a 42-game season with expanded playoffs. Like with MLB, that would result in less expenditure (prorated player salaries during the season) and increased revenue (more playoff games).

After witnessing a full season get cancelled in 2004-05 and another half-season get chopped in 2012, nothing would be surprising at this point.

If the players are going to budge, the NHL is going to need to offer them some sort of concession. The extended CBA featured allowing players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. I’m not sure what the NHL could offer that would make the players OK with increasing escrow and deferred payments.

“If we’re going to budge on this, we have to get something in return,” one player said. “They’re going to have to come with something good if we’re going to make this happen.”

The Jan. 1 start date is looking really optimistic right now. Let’s hope the two sides can come to an agreement soon.