31 Thoughts: NHL teams prepping for anything amid COVID-19 suspension

With an Ottawa Senator becoming the first NHL player to test positive for COVID-19, Hockey Central Insider Elliotte Friedman joins Faizal Khamisa to discuss the latest developments.

• Inside the ECHL season cancellation
• Why expanded NHL playoffs make sense
• What’s in the Calgary Flames cookbook

Twelve hours after helping a teammate move out of his hockey-season home, James Henry is available to talk. The Winnipeg-born forward, who played five WHL seasons with the Vancouver Giants and Moose Jaw Warriors, is an ECHL veteran.

It quickly becomes obvious that, as captain of the Adirondack Thunder and the team’s PHPA rep (the minor leagues’ version of the NHLPA), Henry feels an obligation to speak out.

“I think we expected a little more support and backing,” he says. “We didn’t get as much effort as we should have.”


Last Saturday night, the ECHL announced it was cancelling the rest of the 2019–20 season, including the playoffs. A couple of sources indicated the conference call was “heated,” with some teams arguing it was wrong to cut loose players without pay.

“I wouldn’t call it heated,” Commissioner Ryan Crelin said on the 31 Thoughts podcast. “There were varying viewpoints, and it was emotional…. But there were a couple of factors that everyone agreed on. We wanted to find something to hold on to, a way to keep the season going… but I wouldn’t say that it was heated.

“It was an excruciating decision, (but) 100 per cent the right decision.”

The ECHL has a weekly salary cap of $13,300 per team (20 players). The floor is $10,100. There are playoff bonuses — after the first round. Multiple sources indicated the biggest issue was the future of the league itself. Crelin and PHPA Executive Director Larry Landon were concerned about franchises surviving the economic impact of COVID-19.

“We were worried about three or four teams,” Landon said Tuesday. “This was the best thing to do to protect players and the CBA. We will do our best to save jobs. These are difficult times, with difficult decisions on all fronts. No one wants to be in this position. If you look at the entire picture, the vast majority of ECHL teams are in no position to pay players with no revenues.”

“That’s certainly a top priority — to maintain our league and our member teams,” Crelin added. “Economic activity is seizing up right now…. Even our teams at the top of attendance are going to be significantly impacted. At this point I believe we made the prudent decision to give us the best opportunity to maintain our league and set up our league for future growth for years to come. We’re working together to try and help all of our members.”

The best piece of news is that players’ health insurance will be covered until June 30. Moving expenses are covered, too. If Henry had a request, it would be to honour one other CBA provision: If a player is waived and doesn’t get a new job in two weeks, he receives two weeks’ pay as severance.

“You go from fully expecting to be compensated to nothing,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to help people who need it. Some guys are renting out their regular place during the season, so they have to find somewhere else to go. They’ve lost their April rent (at their ECHL home). Opportunities to earn money are going to be hard right now because people aren’t hiring.”

“We discussed it, but under our CBA, when you invoke end of season, there is no severance,” Crelin said. “We understand this is a troubling time for everyone. For our teams, for our players, for all stakeholders in the ECHL community. The PHPA recognizes that and we recognize that as well. So we’ll be working as partners in hockey to try and assist everyone.”

The ECHL and PHPA have a “career enhancement” plan. It allows players to take courses or learn a trade, and can help with job placement. Landon said he’s found work for three players, but Henry recognizes there won’t be enough opportunity due to shutdowns.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Both Crelin and Landon said other avenues to help are being discussed.

“We have a player-hardship find — that will be looked at,” Crelin said. “How can we build up that fund, and then react on a case-by-case basis, or perhaps a blanket scenario — make sure we are supporting everyone in our community on both sides of the aisle?”

“Given the uncertainty, nothing is off the table,” Landon added. “We know they need help. We’re working to create funds for economic need.”

One idea: There is one team (rumoured to be defending Kelly Cup champion Newfoundland) that apparently offered to pay its players through the remainder of the regular season. The Growlers are unique in that the parent Maple Leafs have several players on NHL/AHL contracts there, so the big club is responsible for those. With this added flexibility, there’s room to help out those on ECHL deals.

It was not allowed.

“Under our end-of-season [rules], any payment to an ECHL-contracted player would be a salary-cap violation,” Crelin said. “The PHPA represents all their members and we represent all our teams. We act as a league and move forward as a league…. Collective bargaining takes months and months. We had hours and hours. We stayed within the terms of that agreement.”

He added, “We recognize these are extraordinary times.”

Yes, they are. That’s why any team that wishes to step in should be allowed to — on a one-time, agreed-upon scenario. For one thing, it embodies the spirit of what needs to happen for everyone to survive this. For another, if a team takes more responsibility upon itself, that’s fewer players that the league and PHPA have to worry about. The emergency fund can help those others.

One agent said it best: “This just sucks. It’s not anyone’s fault — it just sucks.”

“Some sleepless nights, no question,” Crelin finished. “But you’ve got to make what you believe is the right decision…. There were moments where you believe it is the wrong decision. But as we reflect on it here, I’m confident it was the right decision.”

31 THOUGHTS

1. We all need a good smile right now, and, on Tuesday night, it came from the Canadiens’ and Kings’ twitter feeds. The two teams were supposed to play last night. Instead, their social media teams did video-game simulations:

In a textbook example of unconscious bias, Montreal won 6-2 on its feed, the Kings won 5-4 on theirs. Los Angeles had Trevor Lewis scoring the winner in the last few seconds, and the celebration surrounded Shea Weber:

A true simulation would have seen Weber pile drive everyone in anger.

2. The OHL, QMJHL and WHL notably cancelled the remainder of their regular seasons, but not the playoffs. According to Sportsnet CHL analyst Sam Cosentino, the No. 1 thing that allows them to do on time is their drafts — which would be online. As for playoffs, what does Sam think?

“Contingency plans are being discussed frequently,” he said. “But with the Memorial Cup scheduled for Kelowna, government regulations will determine that.”

How late do you think the CHL can wait?

“I think it has to happen before the NHL draft.”

3. In its media release last week announcing the season’s pause, you could tell the NHL was well aware it would be impossible to escape at least one positive test to a player. That happened Tuesday night with an Ottawa Senator. The official position is that testing is necessary if a player is symptomatic and/or determined to need a swab. This is always a thorny issue. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was upset when Brooklyn Nets players were tested:

A great deal of “flattening the curve” is about self-isolation, social distancing and limiting contact. That’s what the NHL and NHLPA are asking players to do.

4. Obviously, there are a few questions about the Sens player’s identity being undisclosed. It was his choice. In the NBA, both Kevin Durant and Rudy Gobert agreed to put their names out there, but it is a personal decision.

5. Ottawa visited Los Angeles in the most recent game of this NHL season. That was March 11, days after the Brooklyn Nets were at the same arena to face the Lakers. (The Senators reportedly used the same dressing room as the NBA visitors.) They also played earlier in both San Jose and Anaheim. The game against the Sharks was played after public health officials in Santa Clara County advised the public to avoid large gatherings in the area. (A mandatory decree came two days later.) The team also had a day off in the Los Angeles area on May 8. Some of the players went to the basketball game that night. So those will be the steps everyone tries to retrace.

6. Nine months ago, 25-year-old winger Spencer Foo decided to try a new hockey adventure, leaving AHL Stockton for Kunlun Red Star of the KHL.

“I loved it,” Foo said Tuesday, back home in Canada after his team missed the playoffs. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but I had a blast.”

Red Star had a legit excuse, as it spent the last month of the season on the road as COVID-19 expanded.

“At the start, it was hard to find information into what was happening because news is in [Mandarin], and you can’t find translations. By the time we left Beijing the final time, there was nobody on the subways, nobody on the street. That was crazy because you are used to seeing people everywhere.”

Because he could not go back to collect belongings, Foo came home with what he carried on his final road trip. The rest of his stuff is still over there. One of the reasons he went was the possibility of representing China at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“That is still the plan. A few of us (who played there) are still hoping that is an option.”

You’re going back for next season?

“Yes. It was an awesome experience.”

7. How much Mandarin did he learn?

“We gave it a valiant effort,” he laughs. “It’s a tough language, props to anyone who can learn it.”

What can you say?

“I can do ‘Thank you,’ ask for water and direct a taxi driver. Another try next year. But it makes you think of European players who come to Canada and the U.S. for sure.”

Kunlun’s schedule is not easy, simply because of location. They’d go on a 10- to 14-day road trip and then back to Beijing, where players would stay in a hotel or an AirBNB. It meant checking in and out over and over again, sometimes with a roommate. Foo joked captain Brandon Yip, who played 174 NHL games with Colorado, Nashville and Phoenix, always had a single room, “Because he’d be complaining if not. The travel does create a decent amount of adversity, but we had a good group that embraced being over there and seeing the world. When you’re going hotel to hotel, you end up being very close. It’s fun that way.”

8. What was the most difficult thing about playing there?

“It’s hard to explain, but you think it is going to be a really offensive league, because there are so many super-skilled players. But it is much more defensive. You get some NHL-sized rinks, some Olympic and some in Finland that are in the middle of the other two. Switching rink-to-rink gives you a different feel depending on where you’re playing. We played on an Olympic-sized rink in Beijing, where it slowed down — not quite as many chances. It was hard to find offence.”

Foo finished with 25 points in 58 games.

“Once I figured it out, I felt a lot more confident.”

Does head coach Curt Fraser still have that killer glare?

“He’s an awesome guy, great for us,” Foo laughed. “We didn’t see it too much, but you know it is there.”

9. What is the wildest hockey-related thing you saw?

“Oh, the fan stuff in the intermissions. There were a couple games I sat out with an injury. There was one where they came on the ice in running shoes after a fresh scrape — two teenage girls doing a tug-of-war, no helmet, falling all over the place. It was hilarious.”

Finally, I asked what he thought of hockey’s chances for success in China.

“There are a ways to go, but the good thing to see is there were kids and families at our games. The biggest thing is getting the youth there into the sport.”

10. In case you are not a basketball fan, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the NBA’s Board of Governors had a conference call with former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday. According to Wojnarowski: Murthy explained the “grim potential impact of coronavirus pandemic in U.S., but left owners with hope of re-starting season/playoffs before July.”

11. It is a tough time to be an optimist. We had heard about the impact the coronavirus would have, but now, those of us in North America are seeing it play out in real time. Everyone is stressed about the financial implications. When it comes to the NHL, there’s nothing anyone can do but see how it plays out over the next six weeks. We can speculate all we want (and come up with fun/crazy playoff scenarios) but we won’t know until close to the end of April at the earliest.

“All we can do is chill until then,” one agent said.

That’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to try and make it my (mental) approach. On his Pull Up podcast, Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum talked with teammate Carmelo Anthony about meditation — how it helps them deal with life’s insanities. There are just so many factors here we cannot control.

If I could recommend one thing that I’ve picked up later in life: 10 minutes of meditation per day, which I try to do with my son. I never thought I’d be into anything like that, but it slows down life and clears your mind. Very valuable.

12. Many of you, great hockey fans that you are, have asked good questions like, “What happens with the conditional first-rounder in the Jason Zucker trade?” or “What happens with the conditional pick based on James Neal/Milan Lucic production?” or “How do rookie bonuses hit or not yet hit affect my favourite team’s cap next year?” These are all good questions. At this time, there are no good answers. It depends on when the NHL resumes and what things look like.

Obviously, there will be changes to the NHL’s calendar. There’s nothing confirmed, but teams are preparing for the possibility of life without a combine, a draft from their own war rooms, and no visitation period for free agency. Who knows how everything plays out, but organizations know they need to be prepared for anything.

13. One of the most interesting questions that one exec asked: What happens in situations where teams were considering front-office and/or coaching changes? Does this give them a reprieve? Can you do a proper search/interview process under these circumstances?

14. One of the theories behind the AHL not cancelling its season yet is the NHL clubs may want a “taxi squad” of extra players available to them for any playoffs that might happen.

15. We’ll get back to business later, but I wanted to inject some fun throughout the blog. If you are looking for some new recipes, allow me to present (via @derek_orr12 on Twitter) Flaming Foods: A Cookbook of Enjoyable Recipes by your Calgary Flames Families:

Derek said Doug Risebrough was a family friend, and gave them the book. Please enjoy selections from Al MacInnis, Bob and Martha Johnson, and Harley and Becky Hotchkiss:

I know some of these may not be 21st-century healthy, but who cares?

16. Via text, I asked Al MacInnis if he really made the Cape Breton Clam Chowder or the Turtle Cake.

“Absolutely,” he answered. “You grow up quick when moving away from home. We didn’t have a team chef to make three meals a day.”

17. Okay, so when it comes to the possibilities for playing again, here are a couple of things that are important to the NHL: 1) awarding a Stanley Cup this year, and 2) ensuring a full 82-game season next year. As we sit here on March 18, we have no idea if these things are going to be possible, but those are the targets.

18. Existential question, if it came down to it: If you’re Chicago or Montreal, would you rather be in the playoffs or the draft lottery?

19. This is why I think an expanded playoffs with a unique format will be targeted, if it’s at all possible. One of Commissioner Gary Bettman’s biggest successes has been negotiating TV deals. We all know the U.S. one is up soon. When sports comes back, people are going to be starving for action. Go big or don’t bother. So if there’s a way to include eyeball-catchers like the Blackhawks and Canadiens, it’s going to happen.

20. I’m a big believer in play-in games, and, as Chris Johnston reported, we could very well see some. But, instead of two games, total goals, there’s a better way. After all, if the first game ends 5–1, the second is borderline wasteful.

So here’s the better way: Game 1 is only 60 minutes no matter what. If Game 1 ends in a tie, then Game 2 is winner-take-all. And if someone wins Game 1, then the other team must win Game 2 in regulation to force sudden-death overtime. That gives us a better chance for an incredibly meaningful Game 2. Love it.

21. Jeff Marek’s crazy playoff idea from the 31 Thoughts podcast: Go home until September. Play the Stanley Cup playoffs then, which crowns a new champion in December. Then start the season again in January, with another champion in June. The NHL’s desire for an 82-gamer next year ruins that, as does the question: What do you do with the teams who don’t qualify, assuming not everyone is invited? But I have to say I didn’t hate it as much as I hate most of Marek’s ideas.

22. I don’t know if the NHL has discussed it, but an NBA friend says the idea of playing the playoffs at one or two locations that are declared “safe” first has been thrown around. More of a brainstorm than actual policy, though.

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23. Some previously taped podcasts will be coming. One is with Nashville head coach John Hynes, who has not been afraid to bench his best players.

“There’s a reason why I’m in Nashville now,” Hynes said. “Part of it was the team was not where it needed to be record-wise. So when we came in, we really talked about — as a new coach — our standard of play, our standard of competitiveness, the work ethic that it takes to be successful every night has to be higher. We had talked about what the standard was going to be, and we talked about having guys earning their ice time. If you’re a 20-minute player and that’s your ice time, we’d expect you to play at a high level for 20 minutes. When I first came in, I thought our team was very inconsistent, and part of our inconsistency was we didn’t have the right kind of work ethic and competitive level night in and night out. In a situation where we have to win games, [the most competitive players] are going to get the most ice time. To their credit, I think those guys understood what was going on. Their games have gotten better — they accepted and wanted to know why and what they needed to do to have to get it.”

I decided to do some fishing and ask Hynes if there was a particular conversation that struck him as honest. He mentioned Viktor Arvidsson.

“He self-admitted, ‘I’m not having a great year,’” the coach said. “My job as a coach is to help this guy come through. He’s one of our better players, he’s had massive success in the league…. I say, ‘If you were the coach, the way you’re playing right now, would you play you 18 minutes a night?’ And he says, ‘Probably not.’ Okay, well, these are the areas that need to get better. This is how we need to work to get these areas better for me to be able to give you that ice…. To his credit, he [put in the work]… and he’s progressively gotten better.”

24. Courtesy @Liam_Morrison95: The unofficial 31 Thoughts: The Podcast drinking game. Don’t do this and drive.

25. Some NCAA free-agent stuff: On his Instagram, Scott Perunovich made it clear his successful time at Minnesota-Duluth is over:

The 45th-overall selection in the 2018 NHL draft, he could become an unrestricted free agent if not signed June 1 by the St. Louis Blues, who picked him. (The June 1 date could change, too, since everything is up in the air.) All indications are that the Blues are the frontrunners, but he knows there would be plenty of opportunity if he chose to examine it.

26. Perunovich’s college teammate, Nick Wolff, signed in Boston on Wednesday. The AAV is $792,500.

27. Others getting closer to a decision: Mitchell Chaffee (UMass); Connor Mackey (Minnesota State-Mankato); Brinson Pasichnuk (Arizona State); Colton Poolman (North Dakota). Teams can’t sign them to contracts for this season, which would usually be a recruiting strategy — “We’ll let you burn the year.” Curious to see if any of them wait until we get some kind of resolution, to see if “burning the year” will still be possible.

28. Clarkson’s Josh Dunne has notified teams he will stay in school.

29. The U.S. National Development Team had to cancel a recent camp for the 2004 birthdays.

“That’s a talented group,” one source said.

It may force decision makers to select the team from the group invited to the camp. It’s imprecise, but unusual measures for unusual times.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

30. Last Saturday, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to a new CBA through 2030. It was a very close vote, contentious and controversial. Superstars like Aaron Donald, Aaron Rodgers, JJ Watt and Russell Wilson publicly voiced their reasons for voting “no,” but their side was defeated. One of the theories out there is that, as bulletproof as the NFL is, there were concerns about what the COVID-19 outbreak could do to finances. While the highly paid superstars were going to be financially safe, other players weren’t as sure.

At a time when the NHL and NHLPA are negotiating their own extension, you wonder how this will affect those talks. Unlike with the NFL, this pandemic hit at a critical point of the NHL season. On last week’s conference call with the clubs, estimates were that $1 billion in revenues could be affected — approximately 20 per cent of the 2018–19 total.

31. The biggest player concern will be escrow — as it always is. If no playoffs are played, players are concerned it could get to 30–35 per cent, which would be the highest ever. It’s possible there would be conversations about spreading that out over multiple seasons, but that’s a big bite from the paycheques.

The biggest concern from teams will be cap, and you can expect the NHL and NHLPA to work together on keeping it as close to this year’s $81.5 million as possible — as opposed to lowering it.

The biggest concern for owners will be damage to other business, never mind hockey. And, while player salaries are tied into a percentage of the cap, other expenses aren’t. So, we’ll see if there is incentive to work together. Cap, escrow, Olympics, World Cup, everything. The world is different today.

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