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NHL catches NHLPA off guard with CBA salary talks

The owners are feeling the squeeze of the pandemic

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

To begin the NHL’s return to play for 2020 back in July, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to both the terms of the bubble and a new CBA that took the cash-crunch realities of the COVID-19 pandemic into consideration. The teams would continue to lose out on ticket sales and concessions while the teams were in the bubble, and it was expected that with a delayed 2020-2021 season start, they’d continue to lose out on revenue at least through December.

The league and its players agreed to a 10% salary deferment of this upcoming season’s pay; escrow payments were also capped at 20% for this upcoming season, with the cap decreasing to six percent for the last three seasons of the CBA. It was a significant amount of money taken from the players’ paychecks and spread about, especially when you consider that they get taxed just like everyone else, and these payments were post-tax, not pre. However, it’s either agree to salary terms that are less than ideal, or don’t get paid because the team can’t afford to, right?

That’s apparently the argument that the NHL is using with the players, and the NHLPA is not happy about it. During the talks for a return to play for this season, presumably in January, the league sprung new salary term options on the players: 20% deferment and 25% escrow cap or 26% deferred compensation through next season and an escrow cap increase to 8.5% a year instead of six percent from years four through six.

Needless to say, the players are not going for it.

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News believes it’s a bad look for players and the league to be fighting over salary right now when millions have been thrown into the uncertain maw of a COVID-19 economy. After discussing the very real concerns of team owners, and then the very real concerns of players, he concludes with this:

So yes, this is a very real discussion about money. But guess what? Everybody is having a difficult time right now. So if the NHL and players are looking for sympathy as they have this very public dispute, they’re not bound to find many among people trying to get through one of the most monumental challenges this generation has faced.

His point that both the team and the players were unrealistic and conservative in the expectations of how long the pandemic would last and its economic effects is well taken - after all, their consultations with doctors went as far as “how do we safely play,” not “do you have any book recommendations on the trajectory of pandemics in America?” If they had researched the latter, they may not’ve been so optimistic about a December return to play.

I don’t believe either side is looking for sympathy here; they’re trying to protect their own bottom lines. The NHLPA’s anger, one player made clear, is due to simple goalpoast moving:

“We just signed a new CBA four months ago,” said one player who has been on NHLPA calls throughout the process. “And in that agreement we accounted for this season being not a typical season. And now they’re trying to walk it back and change the structure on us. That’s bull. If we came to them and said we wanted to amend the terms, no way that would fly.”

It’s a reasonable complaint. The NHL wants a mulligan because they underestimated the impact of the pandemic; the NHLPA believes that the CBA was agreed to in good faith by all sides and that this is an unfair request.

If the league wants to keep that January 1 start date and hold camps before then, they and the NHLPA are going to have to resolve this situation ASAP.