As the NHL inches closer to starting the playoffs, there will be a lot made of the fact that players can opt out of playing out this season for any reason. A player can tell his employer that playing this season will get in the way of his golf game and he’ll be able to skip the playoffs with impunity. This will be seen as a triumph for the players. You have to wonder why the NHL and NHL Players’ Association even bothered to take the time to negotiate this aspect of the agreement.
Here’s a bold prediction, a hot take, if you will. Of the 744 players – 31 for each of the 24 teams taking part - who will be eligible to play in the playoffs starting in August, I don’t believe a single one will opt out of playing. Not one. No number of positive cases of COVID, which is essentially at 35 and counting, no amount of risk and the possibility of not making anything more beyond playoff bonus money will keep these guys off the ice.
The players agreed to hold back their last paychecks from this season as part of their contribution to offset the owners’ losses and reduce the amount of escrow and players never get paid during the playoffs. That will reduce the amount they owe by about $140 million. Players whose teams lose in the first-round play-in series will receive $20,000 each and those whose teams win the Stanley Cup will make an extra $240,000. Neither of those is a insignificant amount of money, but for most of the stars of the NHL, it basically represents money that gets lost in their couches. If the Toronto Maple Leafs manage to win 19 games and capture the Stanley Cup, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Auston Matthews will receive approximately 1.5 percent of what their signing bonuses and salaries were supposed to be this season.
This will deter no one. The players, as they almost always do, will overwhelmingly approve a collective bargaining agreement that they probably won’t be crazy about and return-to-play rules that will put them at risk of testing positive, and not a single one will flinch. Because if hockey players have proved one thing time and again, it’s that it is simply not in their DNA to not compete. Some players may be deemed unfit to play – diabetic NHLers Max Domi and Kaapo Kakko come to mind – and the decision will be taken out of their hands. But if there’s any way a player can get on the ice for the playoffs, to a man that player is going to take that opportunity.
There may be players who don’t feel terribly comfortable about playing hockey right now and being in such closed quarters for an extended period of time. Others might have people in their families or inner circle who have compromised immune systems, but the prediction here is that they’ll all play. And one of the biggest reasons for that will be the shame factor. Hockey players care more about what their teammates think about them than almost anything else and any player who declines to play, even if he doesn’t disclose a reason, knows he will have a very, very difficult time walking back into his team’s dressing room next season.
There are a good number of players who would not have a problem misleading medical personnel about concussion symptoms so they can stay in the lineup. They play through injuries and pain that would take down most normal people. Some of them are more than willing to be punched bareknuckle in the face. There is no way they’re going to sit out a chance to win the Stanley Cup because of a virus they have only a small chance of contracting and a much smaller chance of experiencing a bad outcome even if they test positive. Young people who are fit are in the lowest risk group when it comes to the dangers of a positive COVID diagnosis.
The NHL has gone to great lengths to reduce the risk of transmission and keep its players safe. We’ll see how that works out, but there’s nothing to suggest that the players don’t have full confidence in their employer here. But nothing is foolproof. In fact, there could be an outbreak early in the proceedings that shuts the entire thing down. If that happens, it will be because of a joint agreement between the NHL and NHLPA, not because the players started backing out. The same players who would do anything to keep their spot in the lineup and do even more to have a chance to win a Stanley Cup will put all of their fears aside and they’ll play, every single one of them. Mark my words.
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