How Far Will the Players Allow the NHL to Push Them in Their Latest Stand-Off?

With the NHL asking for more concessions to the CBA when the ink is barely dry is tantamount to gut-punching the players, then kicking them when they're down, according to one agent.
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The issue in the current imbroglio between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association isn’t whether or not the players are angry about the latest developments. They are. And looking at this situation from the outside, they have every right to be.

Look at this from the players’ perspective. After the pandemic hit in March, the players not only gave back one of their paychecks, they agreed to spend up to two months away from their families in a bubble without being paid for it. And they agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement four more years to take it to 2026, the first year coming with 20 percent escrow and a 10 percent salary deferral to help the owners with their cash flow problems.

And after signing what they thought was a binding contract, the NHL is coming back to them and looking for more. Originally, the players agreed to 20 percent escrow this season (and up to 18 percent next season) and a 10-percent salary deferral. That means a player who is owed a salary of $1 million this season, would actually be taking home only $720,000 before taxes. But now the league is reportedly looking in the first year to increase the escrow to 25 percent and the deferral to 26 percent, which would reduce that take-home salary to $555,000.

The other option the league has put to the players involves bumping up the deferral from 10 percent to 26 percent for this season, with escrow remaining at 20 percent. That means that the player making $1 million would now be down to $592,000. But here's the kicker, and it's a big one. Because the league feels there would still be a significant debt for the players in the last three years of the deal, the escrow would go up from the agreed-to six percent to somewhere between eight and nine percent. The escrow would remain at between 14 and 18 percent in 2022-23 and 10 percent the next season.

Players who signed new deals this off-season deliberately backloaded their deals to the '23-24, '24-25 and '25-26 seasons because of the lower escrow rates. Now the league is trying to move the goalposts.

And what would the players be getting in return for making these potential concessions? Well, at the moment, it’s believed to be nothing. “They’ll get to play,” one agent told TheHockeyNews.com. “That will be the give-back.”

We get it. The owners are hurting, both in terms of hockey revenues and in other areas of their businesses. But they can also borrow money at historically low interest rates to get them through this time and they’re getting $650 million in expansion money, not a penny of which will be shared with the players. And there’s a theory that when a vaccine does become available and people can go back to games, the teams will be doing a great business again and their profits, and franchise values will continue to rise. The players lose money now and they pretty much lose it forever.

But as the owners have done, and in reality gotten away with doing over the years, they’re once again putting the onus on the players to do some very heavy lifting. “Here’s the thing,” another agent said. “You gut-punch the players, then you kick them when they’re down. This is nonsense. You made a deal four months ago and now you’re coming back and saying you want to increase the escrow?”

Everything is a negotiation and the league is trying to get the best deal possible. At the moment, this is being couched as a “request” from the owners to the players, but what happens if the players refuse to budge? One agent believes that would almost certainly cause the owners to threaten to impose Section 17 of the standard players’ contract, which basically says that if there is “any condition arising from a state of war or other cause beyond the control of the league or of the club, it shall be deemed advisable by the league or the club to suspend or cease or reduce operations,” it would allow the league adjust the player’s salary accordingly. But one agent said that would undoubtedly trigger a lawsuit.

“The players and the owner entered into a CBA…and the players forego a right to strike and the owners forego a right to lock out the players,” he said. “The good-faith implication underlying any CBA is that the owners will make all good-faith efforts to open up the doors of the business and the players will make all good-faith efforts to show up for work. And that’s not happening here. At the end of the day, the owners want to change the CBA they agreed to.

“To me, that’s the veiled threat. ‘If we don’t get what we want, then we won’t open up the doors.’ My immediate reaction to that would be to file an unfair labor grievance. Why would you be cancelling or suspending the league when the other professional sports are playing? Basketball is going to play. Baseball has played. The NFL is playing and you’re telling us that you’re going to suspend or cancel the season? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Now nobody is saying that the NHL has actually issued that kind of ultimatum, but at the very least, it is testing the players’ resolve. And it has created hard feelings and a potentially ugly situation. Both sides simply stand to lose too much by not playing in 2020-21 and this will likely get resolved, but you may have a bunch of very angry and resentful players on your hands once the puck drops again.

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