NHL, union shouldn’t need new set of negotiations over money

I’m old enough to remember when the NHL and NHLPA reached an agreement on a six-year extension of the CBA that took into account worst-case scenarios regarding COVID-19’s impact on next season and the ones thereafter and provided an economic roadmap through the pandemic.

That was this past July, by the way.

But over the past few weeks, there have been and questions about whether players under NHL contract — and that includes those toiling in the AHL or ECHL — might be obligated to accept prorating of their salaries if less than a full slate of games is played in 2020-21. The NHL wouldn’t be expected to start next season until January at the earliest.

(The league, with advise and consent provided by the union, is likely to take as much time as it needs to decipher its best/worst case scenarios as to getting fans in the seats at perhaps severely limited numbers next winter. That might lead to a shortened season.)

There have been murmurs that the league might seek to invoke the force majeure clause (Paragraph 17) of the Standard Player’s Contract in order to prorate pay in the event of a truncated schedule.

The fact is, if the Memo of Understanding (MOU) — crafted by the NHL and NHLPA in wake of their agreement that enabled the league to stage the 2020 Stanley Cup tournament under the twin bubbles in Edmonton and Vancouver — is worth the paper it is written on, the subject has already been adjudicated.

From Section 3 (Escrow) of the MOU: “In connection with the agreement, (i) for the 2019-20 League Year, the NHL agrees to wave any potential applicability of SPC-Paragraph 17 solely on account of the loss of games due to the COVID-19 pandemic on a non-precedential and without prejudice basis for Future League Years, (ii) For the 2020-21 League Year, the NHL agrees to wave any potential applicability of Paragraph 17 (C) in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic in a non-precedential and without prejudice basis for future League Years, and (iii) such waivers do not affect any other rights or positions of the parties with respect to Paragraph 17.”

Paragraph 17 (C) states: “In the event of reduction of operations, the [salary] shall be replaced by that mutually agreed upon between the Club and the Player, or, in the absence of mutual agreement, by that determined by neutral arbitration.”

Got that? Let’s cut through the language. There is nothing to determine, nothing to arbitrate, nothing to negotiate no matter how much certain folks might wish it so. Been there, done that through months of negotiation prior to the restart.

The players and NHL have already agreed on the players’ take for next season, and it is 72 percent of a contract’s face value. Under terms of the CBA, players will defer 10 percent of their pay next year. Also under terms of the agreement, escrow will be capped (and set) at 20 percent. So 90 percent times 80 percent equals 72 percent.

And that will apply regardless of NHL revenue next season, when the cap is delinked from income. It does not matter whether HRR (Hockey Related Revenue) is the $5 billion that might have been projected had the pandemic not hit or a potentially catastrophic $1.3 billion that the league modeled as a worst-case scenario. It doesn’t matter. This has already been negotiated.

The league developed three models — worst-case, medium, best-case — for 2020-21 revenue based on myriad factors. This agreement was crafted while the pandemic was raging. The folks representing Sixth Avenue well understood the potential damage of a largely fan-less 2020-21 season. So did Don Fehr and his group at the PA.

The potential for economic catastrophe is contemplated in the agreement. There is nothing in the MOU that refers to the league getting a do-over on this if next season’s schedule is truncated. Such a scenario would not be tantamount to a lockout.

The owners got their flat cap in the agreement. The players got their cap on escrow. The NHL got their restart and 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. The deal is for six years. Now there are whispers that the reference to Paragraph 17 doesn’t really mean what it says.

If the words at the bottom of Page 6 and the top of Page 7 of the MOU do not mean what they say, then it seems that the players and NHLPA agreed to a six-year CBA extension while the NHL agreed to an extension of a couple of months, subject to their interpretation of the environment. Nice work if you can get it.

Large picture and long term, there is room to second-guess the PA’s approach to the CBA and return-to-play negotiations. But small picture and short term, Fehr nailed it for players under contract for 2020-21. He and the PA ensured them of a 72 percent guarantee of next year’s face value pay. The league knew what it was signing.

There is no need for another negotiation about next season outside the scope of working conditions and coronavirus-related protocols. Been there, done that.

Unless, of course, the agreement doesn’t mean what it says and doesn’t say what Sixth Avenue means.

You know you have spent a life well lived within the game when you receive accolades and cheer from 100 percent of the audience the way that Rick Bowness so deservedly did when the coach took the Stars to the Cup final.

And I am not sure there could be a more popular Stanley Cup winner than Steven Stamkos, if that happens.

Finally, with youth hockey tryouts in New York State set for later this week, there is the case of Roope Hintz, the 23-year-old Dallas winger from Finland, who, as a 16-year-old, didn’t make the cut for a Junior C team operating out of the rink in Brewster.

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