The National Hockey League has revealed its ambitious plans to complete the 2019-20 season, with the return of players to team training facilities ahead of a 24-team, conference-based postseason at two “hub” cities in North America during the summer.
It’s a plan that involves 25,000 to 30,000 coronavirus tests and other protocols to keep the players safe. It involves an unorthodox playoff tournament that some players weren’t happy about. And it involves further negotiations between the league and its players, who approved this “return to play” format but have yet to vote on whether to actually come back to the ice, in a global pandemic, to complete the season.
NHL Players Association executive director Don Fehr spoke with ESPN on Tuesday to clarify the players’ positions on some issues, and to explain whether they’re on board with the NHL’s plans to return to play.
ESPN: According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Tuesday: “Our medical advisers [believe] that a single positive test, depending on the circumstance, should not necessarily shut the whole operation down. Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak that will affect our ability playing. But a single positive test throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end for the tournament.” Does the NHLPA concur with that outlook on positive tests?
Fehr: Our view, and my view, is really pretty simple. [If] we have positive tests, we consult with the appropriate medical people and the local public health authorities where appropriate, and they will tell us what we need to do.
ESPN: Will players incur any costs for testing?
Fehr: I expect that that’s part of management’s responsibility under the economic arrangements we have.
ESPN: What is the approach for players who know they have underlying immune conditions? Or that have family members who are immunocompromised? The NHL has told us there’s leeway as to whether these players can ask out of participating in a playoff tournament during a pandemic. What is the NHLPA’s stance on that?
Fehr: There are still things that have to be negotiated. We haven’t done the Phase 3 or Phase 4 protocols. There are some things about the [return-to-play] format that aren’t quite finished. There’s a lot to do, but that issue will certainly be one that will be raised. And I’m fairly confident that we’ll find a way to resolve it. Nobody wants to expose someone to unreasonable risks given the circumstances. So we’ll have to find a way to come to grips with it. In that regard, we’re just like every other business.
ESPN: Players have voiced a concern about being apart from their families for an extended period of time. Have you received any assurances from the NHL that families will be able to accompany players in the “bubble” when competition resumes?
Fehr: We still have to negotiate those specific things. But when we looked at it overall, [in] Phase 2 they’ll be able to be with families, during training camp they should be able to be. Until we know where we’re going to be and what the facilities are going to be like and what the recommendations from the appropriate health care and medical people are, we won’t be able to come to grips with that precisely. But hopefully nobody is going to be without their families for an extended period of time, like months. I find that very unlikely.
ESPN: Now that the memo is out on a return to training facilities, there’s a lot required of the players. Temperature checks. Testing. Restrictions on capacity. Where are the players on these policies, and were these policies collectively bargained or conceived primarily by the NHL?
Fehr: It was something negotiated with my office, although with some meaningful player involvement. But understand: We’re only dealing with Phase 2, which is voluntary. Final agreements will have to go back and be approved by the players, in terms of what we do. As a general belief on my part, I don’t know that I’ve had this specific conversation with players, but I have a pretty good idea of what their attitude is. I think they would be more concerned if we didn’t do everything we could to make sure people were protected, rather than worrying about if it’s testing too many.
ESPN: Do you expect their experiences in Phase 2 to inform how they feel about living in a “hub” city this summer?
Fehr: It’s certainly possible. I’m not in a position to make a judgment to make it likely or not, but it’s possible that will take place.
ESPN: We were under the belief that training camps would be about three weeks, but Gary Bettman said that the decision will come after input from players. Where do you stand with that, and is there an amount of time players have said they believe to be appropriate?
Fehr: It just depends on who you talk to. We hope that three weeks is going to more or less be the appropriate number. But if we don’t get enough skating in and in Phase 2, for example, with enough players and it has to be a little longer, it will be extended. If it turns out we can get almost everybody back and people are skating and they feel pretty good about it, they can be a little shorter. It’s a work in progress. The notion that we can predict it right now in these circumstances just doesn’t strike me as very likely.
ESPN: The NHL memo had an interesting caveat about players testing positive for COVID-19: “The player shall be deemed to have sustained an illness arising out of the course of his employment as a hockey player for such period as he may be removed from training, practice or play, and his condition shall be treated as a hockey-related injury for all purposes under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, unless it is established, based on the facts at issue, that the Player contracted COVID-19 or the resulting or related illness outside the course of his employment as a hockey player.”
This reads very much like the differentiation between a hockey-related and non-hockey related injury in a player contract, which states that “the Club may suspend the player or even terminate the contract under some circumstances” for a non-hockey related injury. So is it possible, under these bylaws, that a player can be suspended or have his contract terminated for getting COVID-19 away from the rink?
Fehr: I find that to be an extraordinarily unlikely possibility. Everybody involved in the game … certainly the players, but everybody else, too; and all of you [in the media], to the extent you’ll be involved and cover games: You also live in the world. You’re not insulated from it. We all have to be in a position where people take that into account. My visceral reaction would be that it’s extraordinarily unlikely. It has to do with where some of the medical coverage is, and whether it would be a hockey-related condition.
ESPN: The NHL has taken a stance that no new player contracts can be signed for 2019-20, which would limit players coming over from the KHL for example to join their team in the playoffs if they hold his rights. I’m curious what the union’s stance is on this, and if this is something you’re going to fight for?
Fehr: We have a whole raft of things that have to be negotiated before we can go forward, including something called the critical dates calendar, which encompasses all of the signing possibilities in the draft and everything else, plus all the transition rules that we’re going to have to have, much less try and resolve the major economic issues. And we’ve got to come to grips with all of those. And I’m not in a position now to comment on a specific in the manner that you just raised, but if you ask it more generally, are those all things that are on the table? The answer is yes.
Michael Wilbon explains why he believes the new NHL playoff plan is going to be confusing for everyone.
ESPN: It seems like everybody has a different definition on whether these are playoff games. Does the PA consider these to be playoff teams? Was there any pushback from the players on stats in the qualification round not counting towards regular-season totals, since commissioner Gary Bettman said stats are now frozen as of the games played through March 11?
Fehr: First of all, let me stop you: We haven’t decided where the statistics from the playoff round are going to go yet. It hasn’t been done.
I don’t know what you mean by a “playoff team.” Look, there are certain things we know. If we cut the season at a certain date and limit the teams to 16 [playoff spots], you get a particular result. But even that raised questions, because some teams played more games than other teams, and the schedules were different at that point. Maybe you were ahead, but you had five or six rough games coming up. Or you were behind and you had a bunch of easy ones you thought you could win. So you started with that.
Secondly, since the season wasn’t completed, the one thing we know for sure is that teams who had the possibility of qualifying, couldn’t. They didn’t have that chance. What you did was come up with, under all of these circumstances, something that is a reasonable approach to try and go forward. And that’s about the most you could say for it. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that when you try to say “playoff teams” or not, I think the answer really is, “Did you get to play in this tournament that was set up in 2020, under these terribly unfortunate circumstances?”
ESPN: Have you received input from players for how long there needs to be between the completion of the 2019-20 season and the start of 2020-21?
Fehr: What you’ve got essentially is the break has to be long enough to provide an appropriate interim. And if the agreement is we’re going to be negotiating player contracts afterward, it has to sweep in that period of time, too. But we don’t want it to go so long we’re starting in March. So that has to be negotiated yet. Players have a lot of different views on it. But until we see if we’re going to be able to play this year — hopefully we will, if the medical circumstances will permit it — and when that’s going to end, it’s going to be very difficult to make a judgment about that.
ESPN: Don, is it possible to stuff the genie back in the bottle now when it comes to the season? Announcing a format for return to play, the excitement that builds … obviously, the messaging from the NHLPA since last week is that this is not a vote to return to the ice this summer, but a vote on what it would look like if the players did return to play. But it would seem difficult, at this point, to not go forward with this, considering all the messaging coming from the other side.
Fehr: I’ll give you two thoughts on that. First, the players aren’t going to play unless it’s medically OK to do that. And I can’t believe the owners would try to push them into doing that, if it’s not medically OK to do so. Secondly, if it’s medically inappropriate, and we can’t protect the players and the staff and [the media] and the broadcasters and everyone else, whether or not somebody is unhappy about that doesn’t really matter much, does it?
ESPN: What type of health and safety protocols can we expect when the NHL returns, and how different might it look from what we’re used to?
Fehr: What type of safety measures? We’ve not gotten to that. All we’ve done so far is the Phase 2 [protocols], that’s the next step. And we’re going to have to do that, because once you move into training camp, obviously you have more crowded conditions. But that’s something that we’ve got to look at next. We’ve only done the Phase 2 protocols so far.
ESPN: How much of these decisions still to be made, including ultimately whether to return to play, are tied to a new collective bargaining agreement?
Fehr: I don’t know how to answer that. I can only say that we have had negotiations ongoing, for a bit over a year, to try and see if we could come to an agreement on an extension. We now have a completely different set of economic circumstances to fold into that mix. They’re circumstances where we don’t actually know what the situation’s going to be. I mean, nobody knows what the revenue number is going to be next year or the year after, because the error range is too great.
So the only way I could answer this is if we could come to an agreement, that would provide for an extension of the CBA and cover all these things, great. But we won’t know that for a while.
ESPN: Is there a way to come to an agreement on a CBA extension that could lift the debt load for players, considering how much they’re going to potentially give back to owners due to the revenue losses?
Fehr: I’ve been in this business representing professional athletes and team sports in North America for 43 years [as of] August. There’s no way in the world I’m going to give you an answer to that question.
ESPN: We’ve been saying for weeks that the NHL and NHLPA’s relationship has been collaborative. Is that still true and how would you describe your relationship right now?
Fehr: Where did that word come from? Is that something Gary is spitting out?
ESPN: Would you describe your relationship as collaborative?
Fehr: I’m not putting adjectives on it. I’ve learned that everybody interprets the adjective in different ways. So it’s not helpful to do that. But I would say if this was a normal collective bargaining, we know what the economics are. We can make reasonable predictions about what they’re going to be. Management says, “I would like to do A, B, C.” Players say, “We don’t like that. We want to do X, Y, Z.” You get into a situation, and you bargain it out. Sometimes with the threat or the actuality of economic coercion, a strike or a lockout; sometimes, and hopefully not. And you come to some resolution everybody can live with.
This is different. This was not caused by any desire of the players or the NHL or anything like that. The circumstances we have to live with are not within our control. I can’t say, “Yes, Gary, I agree.” Or Gary can’t say, “Yes, Don, we’ll do it your way and we go back to work tomorrow.” It doesn’t work that way. And a lot of the things we have to contend with, we can’t.
But we’re faced with a situation in which we both have twin, joint desires. The first one is to make sure everybody’s health and safety is protected. The second one is to try and make sure that the business, when it reopens, reopens in the best possible way of going forward into the future. And that obviously has economic implications and implications for relationships with fans and all the rest of it. So if the word collaborative is meant to imply that we sort of have to deal with these things which are thrust upon us and we’re trying to do, then I would go along with that.