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The NHL vs. NHLPA dispute is a predictable mess

Step 1: Calm down any panic by shiftly reaching an agreement on a Collective Agreement
Step 2: Briefly return to play and execute that return to play better than anyone would have expected you too.
Step 3: Spend freely during free agency.
Step 4: Realize the virus you needed to go away to sell tickets didn’t magically go away.
Step 5: Panic because you had no Plan B for Step 4.

Before the summer return to play the NHL and the NHLPA managed to pull off what was once considered impossible and they agreed to a Collective Agreement without the loss of games or a cancellation of the season. Of course we’re still seeing cancelled games and a threatened season, but it’s somewhat refreshing to not have it entirely labour relations related, until now.

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No soap operas, just hockey.

The NHLPA agreed to some stiff escrow concessions, a flat cap, and a free agency period that saw a lot of players either taking a haircut or significantly less desirable short term deals. None of it was perfect, but it certainly showed the players were willing to do their part in order to keep the league going, with Olympic participation being the only major thing they gained in return.

The NHL owners, on the other hand are billionaires, that same group of people who have been doing quite well through this whole pandemic thing. They came out favourably in the CBA, and have Seattle expansion fees and a couple of new TV deals waiting for them on the otherside of this. Whatever they get out of the players through this contract dispute wouldn’t significantly impact their empires, but still no one hates losing money more than the rich, so here we are.

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What most of this seems to be leading towards is a delay from the desired January 1st start date to figure this out. The NHL isn’t going to rush back to play when they won’t have any fans in the stands. The shorter the season, the more they can shave off what they are playing their players, and much more unfortunately, what they can shave off what they pay their support staff who don’t have the luxury of sitting on a pile of money waiting for hockey to return again. Alas, thinking downstream isn’t a strength of the NHL or billionaires.

While we may be anxious for the return to play, and the NHL attempting to restructure the collective agreement to benefit owners might not be something we can get behind, the reality of the COVID situation across North America makes any delay in league play more understandable.

Both sides of the border are dealing with record outbreaks, teams like the Blue Jackets have a number of players infected, and the Holiday season is only going to further exhaust health systems as we eagerly await a COVID vaccine. A delay in training camps until a few weeks into the new year still gives us a shot at a tolerable 48 game season starting in February. It allows the league to still showcase their product heading into a new American television deal, and the launch of the Seattle franchise, and yes, though it’s not something they necessarily deserve, it gives the owners more time to squeeze the players for a few more dollars that they don’t really need.

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The NHL’s sloppy execution of the 2021 season start isn’t entirely different from what we saw when baseball returned this summer. All the ducks had seemingly been put in a row, and then there was a step back to see what else could be taken from the players when it was clear they were willing to play. Unfortunately for the NHLPA, the players have even less of a leg to stand on, as hockey is not nearly as profitable in the United States as baseball, and would be missed even less when the American sports audience still has both college and pro basketball to focus on.

So here we are. Wanting hockey, waiting for hockey, and being left to dangle in the wind hoping for a nightly distraction from the nonsense that has been 2020. Instead we’re being treated to more nonsense. It will certainly be figured out, whether through a swift, uneventful agreement that starts everything on time or an 11th hour concession that saves a shortened season because that’s what everyone wants to some degree, but right now the NHL continues to do us all dirty.