ECHL Players Left in Financial Lurch After Season's Abrupt Cancellation

While the NHL remains on hiatus, the second-tier ECHL canceled its season entirely. Many players and their families will be hit hard, but the minor-league PHPA union is starting a relief fund to help cover expenses.
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Like billions of others worldwide in this ongoing pandemic, Larry Landon is constantly reminded of the impact of the novel coronavirus. There are the countless tourist attractions, not far from his office in Niagara Falls and typically crowded 365 days a year, that are now shuttered until further notice. And the small grocery store he can see from his window where employees now herd quarantine-prepping patrons into long lines on the sidewalk, space them six feet apart per public health guidelines and permit no more than 20 to shop at any given time.

Then there is Landon’s work itself. As executive director of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, the union representing some 1,600 minor-leaguers at the NHL-affiliated AHL and ECHL levels, the former Montreal draft pick (eighth round, 1978) has been working from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day for the past week while wrestling the challenge of a lifetime. “This is unprecedented,” says Landon, 61. “Players are disappointed. There's tons of emotion.

“But I get it, given what's happened. It came at them out of nowhere,” he says.

On March 12, acting in lockstep with pro sports leagues across the globe, the ECHL suspended games for its 26 teams due to COVID-19. Three days later the league officially cancelled the rest of its season outright, dropping an unfortunate, if not necessary, hammer on its rank-and-file: Although players would have their immediate moving expenses reimbursed and continue to receive medical insurance through June 30—the result of a hastily bargained agreement with Landon and the PHPA—they would stop getting paid after Monday, March 16. 

Aside from the obvious safety concerns, the decision came down to a matter of money. Effectively the Double-A of hockey, the ECHL isn’t populated with deep-pocketed owners like its counterparts at higher levels. Nor does it have the direct backing of the NHL, which instructed AHL owners to continue issuing salary during the hiatus. And although the average ECHL salary hovers around just $700 a week, several clubs simply couldn’t afford to keep paying players without simultaneously selling tickets, hosting promo nights and otherwise generating revenue from the various gameday sources that keep minor-league franchises afloat.

“I’m sure certain teams could’ve made a go of it,” commissioner Ryan Crelin says. “But on the whole, it wasn’t good financial sense. We are predominantly a spectator and fan-based league. And nobody was playing.”

Besides, continues Crelin, it would’ve been a CBA violation to allow relatively richer teams to hand out checks through early April, when the regular season was previously scheduled to conclude, while others struggled and left players in the cold. “From a legal and labor standpoint, we stayed within the confines of our CBA to treat everyone equally,” Crelin says. “But we know that there will be some who are affected more than others. That’s where we need to come together and help each other after we get through the crisis management.”

The wheels are already spinning there, in no small part thanks to all those hours Landon is clocking at his office. (Aside from a receptionist who lives down the block, the rest of the PHPA employees have been working from home.) Next week, in partnership with the ECHL, the union plans to announce the formation of what will be called the COVID-19 Economic Relief Fund, Landon tells SI.com, intended to assist players with financial troubles over the coming months.

The PHPA will make an initial contribution of $200,000 from its coffers but plans to solicit additional donations on a website from sponsors, fans and NHL players with ECHL ties, among others. The eventual hope is to accumulate upwards of $800,000; according to Landon, that is the estimated amount of total lost player wages due to the cancelled season.

“I’d like to see even more, to be honest,” Landon says. “Everybody’s going to take a hit in this COVID-19 pandemic. We’re just trying to help.”

***

They hit the gym to ease their minds, pedaling on exercise bikes, though it didn’t do much good. It was March 12, moments after center Justin Taylor and his teammates on the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Wings learned that the ECHL season was getting suspended. “We were preparing for the next game, and then it just came to a halt,” Taylor says.

An optional skate was promptly cancelled. Ditto for a team video meeting. Some of the Wings stuck around for a quick workout, but everyone was sent home before long. Meanwhile Taylor, a 10-year ECHL veteran and PHPA executive board member, was fielding a host of concerned questions. As he recalls, “Players were like, ‘What does this mean? Are we getting paid?’”

Far from the chartered flights and five-star hotels enjoyed by NHLers on a regular basis, normal life in the ECHL is stressful enough. Players effectively exist on day-to-day contracts, capable of getting waived at a moment’s notice without any fiscal safety net. They receive housing and utilities stipends through their teams, which certainly helps defray costs. But even the richest deals only draw around $25,000 for a 26-week season, or less than double the weekly salary cap ($13,300) for a 20-player roster. “These guys are barely getting by,” one ECHL team executive says, “but they play because they’re chasing their dream.”

Now subtract three weekly paychecks—not to mention the thousand-dollar-plus playoff bonuses that many would’ve received if the season had gone that long. And add three extra weeks of rent or mortgage payments, meals and any other expenses incurred while players self-quarantine at home. The ECHL has been reimbursing all moving costs as players left town, hurrying through exit physicals to beat any potential travel restrictions. Still, Taylor says, “It’s devastating to us long-term. And obviously it’s not just us as hockey players going through this.”

Indeed, workers everywhere are suffering as the economy sags, laid off from their software companies or restaurants or media outlets (to name a few), thrust into unemployment at the worst possible time. Jordan Henry has seen it up close from two angles. Not only is the 34-year-old Brampton Beast defenseman out his salary, but his wife Jessi recently had to let go of several employees from her wholesale cosmetics company. “It’s tough to go out right now and get a regular job because of the global effect,” Henry says. “I wouldn’t say companies are hiring. Once we get through this, if there’s a chance to get a little more steady, secure job, I feel like there will be a portion of guys who will definitely take it and have to retire out of necessity.”

Many ECHLers earn supplemental income by helping out with youth hockey camps in the offseason. “But most of the rinks are shut down,” Landon says, “so their revenue stream is shut down too.” And though the PHPA offers a “career enhancement program” that places minor-leaguers into gigs, such as general contracting or firefighting, scores of opportunities have fallen through as a result of the fallout. Idaho Steelheads defenseman Colton Saucerman, for instance, was banking on earning upwards of $20,000 from running a girls’ hockey tournament in Prague with girlfriend Keira Goin, a former Division III netminder. Now he is wondering whether he can even afford rent to stay in Boise to train over the summer.

“Especially guys with girlfriends and families, kids… the impact is just immediately felt,” Saucerman says. “My girlfriend is working a food job at a juice bar. That is on its way to probably stopping. With the season immediately ending, we have enough to be comfortable for a couple months. Then it’s like, what next?”

Fortunately, the PHPA’s Economic Relief Fund should be up and running long before then. How money will be doled out remains to be determined; according to Landon, the current proposal involves a committee—comprised of himself, Crelin, two PHPA executive committee members and two ECHL executive board members—that would establish general criteria for relief, solicit requests and award what they deem appropriate. Players with partners and children would get top priority, Landon says, and any surplus would be distributed equally among them. “But I don’t expect that to happen,” Landon says. “There are families with critical needs.”

The better question is whether enough money will be generated to satisfy every need. The ECHL will likely contribute and encourage fiscally sound teams to do the same. Crelin also mentions tapping “sponsors, high-profile individuals, things of that nature,” as well as “setting up fundraisers’ as additional donation sources. And what about the NHL, whose locker rooms, benches and front offices are populated with ECHL alumni? (One such alumnus, former winger-turned-social media personality Paul Bissonnette, has already announced plans to raise money on his podcast.)

“Theoretically, sure, they could,” Crelin says. “Using that fund, I don't think there’s going to be anyone stopping from making a contribution. I’ve had fans reach out. We want to find a way to collectively get through this for everyone.”

For Taylor and his peers, every little bit helps. The veteran forward has spent the past several days at home in Kalamazoo, self-quarantining with wife, Kelsey, and their 3-year-old son, Jonah, keeping busy with various arts-and-crafts projects and tasks around the house. He estimates he lost some $5,000 when the ECHL season abruptly ended, which could’ve been more if the Wings had been in the playoff chase.

“That’s a lot of money when you have people who depend on you,” Taylor says. “We’re a single-income family. What I make is what we live off. It’s gonna hurt.”