When was the last time you ever heard an NHL player talk about not wanting to play the game he loves? Today years old you say? Well, there’s a first time for everything. That’s what J.T. Miller of the Vancouver Canucks did and players everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude for standing up for them when their league, one of their teams and their players’ association were unwilling to do so.
On Wednesday, we openly asked why the COVID-ravaged Canucks are even being made play out the rest of this season. There were 25 cases, some of them with a variant whose full effects are not yet known. At that time, the Canucks were being presented with a brutal schedule, which was forcing them to play two teams in the space of 22 hours and 19 games in 31 days, all the while being expected to keep up with the best players in the world while recovering from a very serious illness. It was sheer lunacy.
Then J.T. Miller spoke up. One of the only Canucks not struck down by the virus clearly wasn’t content to shut up and play. He talked about how worried he was for his teammates and how ridiculous it is that they were going to have to do this just to fulfill the NHL’s and Canucks’ advertising and broadcasting commitments. (Funny how prior to Miller speaking, the Canucks were planning on opening their practice facility to the media today. After Miller spoke, the Canucks made it a closed practice and did not make any players available for interviews. Remember that the next time someone who writes about hockey for a living carps about being denied access.)
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TheHockeyNews.com that the league wasn’t strong-arming anyone into doing something against his will. “Everything, including resumption date and various other critical aspects of their remaining schedule, were done entirely collaboratively and with club input and consent,” Daly wrote in an email. The NHLPA signed off on it, too. The only problem was that the top-down corporate structures of all those entities apparently neglected to check with the most affected party before agreeing on its behalf.
Miller was very pointed in his comments. He talked about how unreasonable all of this was and about how it wasn’t even about making the playoffs anymore for this team. That had to throw a major scare into the NHL because then you’re talking about the integrity of competition. And it also put the NHL and the NHLPA in a terrible light. It’s never good when a player talks about surviving a stretch of games without even worrying about winning any of them.
And because Miller, a nine-year pro with the security of a deal that has two years remaining, summoned the courage to speak, the league had no choice but to listen to the concerns of the players. As it stands, the Canucks will no longer be playing the Edmonton Oilers Friday night, nor will they likely be going against the Toronto Maple Leafs the following evening. At the very least, that would give the Canucks an extra 48 hours to prepare. When the Buffalo Sabres were sidelined by COVID, they had to play 19 games in 32 days and when it happened to the New Jersey Devils, it was 18 in 31 days. None of the players on those teams spoke up and the NHL managed to pull it off. But the Canucks were off for more than three weeks and had far more players who were far worse off from a health standpoint than players on those teams.
This actually could be a watershed moment for the players. Sometimes, you look at what they end up with in collective bargaining talks and you begin to think that perhaps they’re a little too willing to accept whatever the league offers them. Since the exit of Bob Goodenow from the NHLPA, they’re not a terribly militant bunch. Discuss amongst yourself whether that’s a good or bad thing.
But there have been some indications that the players are beginning to find their voices again. When the NHL did a terrible, slapdash job of handling the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting, it was the players who stepped up and put the playoff bubble play on pause for a couple of days. When the NHL tried to change the rules of the previously-agreed-to collective bargaining agreement to extract more money from the players, they were firm in their resolve. And on Wednesday, J.T. Miller stood up to the league and the NHLPA and pointed out that what they were doing was not in the best interests of him and his teammates.
And for that he should be applauded, both by those who watch the games and the ones who play them. The Canucks were failed by their league, their team and their players’ association and with his bold stance, Miller made sure they knew it.