Board of Governors notebook: NHL participation in Beijing remains uncertain

David Amber, Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman discuss their Day 2 takeaways from the NHL BOG meetings, including the latest from the league's Olympic participation in Beijing, how good the league's economy is now, and the future of Gary Bettman.

MANALAPAN, Fla.— If you were holding your breath and hoping for clarity to emerge from the Board of Governors meeting on whether or not NHL players will be participating in the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing, China, try to inhale a little deeper.

While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, after Friday’s session with the governors, that players will ultimately decide on participation, he made it clear the players don’t have enough information currently at their disposal to finalize their decision. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly also clarified that they could withdraw at any point prior to the Games—even if they face a financial penalty for doing so after Jan. 10.

While Bettman said the league has expressed multiple concerns to the players about participating, he also said the majority of players still intend to go.

However, that could change in a hurry if the players receive confirmation that testing positive for COVID-19 would force them to serve a three-week quarantine in China.

That neither the league nor its players have certainty on protocols less than 60 days out from the Games beginning is certainly a cause for concern.

“The Beijing organizing committee is supposed to issue a new book, which actually was supposed to be issued seven-to-10 days ago,” said Daly. “It is not finalized yet, so we don’t have any certainty on that.”

What both he and Bettman appear convinced of is not wanting to send the players if positive tests lead to them being locked away in China for 21 days.

“I actually find it difficult to believe that a player would want to go understanding he was risking being in China for an extra three weeks,” said Bettman.

But the commissioner repeated several times that the NHL won’t stand in the way if the players ultimately decide they want to go regardless.

“As part of the extension of the collective bargaining agreement 20 or so months ago, we made a promise to give the players, if they so desired and the appropriate arrangements could be made, to have the players participate in the Olympics,” Bettman said. “I think you all know that we have real concerns about that, even pre-COVID, in terms of the impact on the season. Our concerns have only been magnified but, ultimately, we made a commitment…

“We have concerns, and we’ve expressed those to the Players Association, and we’ve seen a number of players who are expressing concerns. We’ll have to see how this ultimately plays out. There are a number of open issues, and I know the Players Association has concerns about them. But ultimately, we will honour, as we promised the players we would subject to the scheduling caveat, to move forward and let them play if that’s really what they want to do.”

What would cause the NHL to intervene and keep its players from going?

Bettman explained that multiple COVID outbreaks leading to the cancelation of “lots and lots of games” would make pausing for the Olympics unviable.

Daly added, “We have an agreement that any material disruption of our season would certainly give us cause to withdraw.”

While there have been some postponements to Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders games following outbreaks, the league has been able to operate without the type of disruption that would force it to pull the plug on Olympic participation.

Still, the prospect of seeing Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon play in their first Games with Team Canada or Alex Ovechkin help the Russians redeem themselves after an underwhelming tournament in Sochi is anything but guaranteed.

“Let’s not make a problem where there isn’t one.”

Those were the words Bettman uttered on Friday with regards to the Arizona Coyotes, who were days away from being locked out of Gila River Arena by the city of Glendale for not paying a tax bill north of $1.3 million owed to them and the state of Arizona.

The team paid its bill on Thursday and stated the default was due to “human error,” and Bettman appeared perfectly satisfied with that response.

He also accused the city of Glendale of having an axe to grind with the Coyotes because they intend to move to Greater Phoenix next season.

“It’s clear that the City of Glendale has either an agenda or an edge in the way they’re dealing with the Coyotes,” Bettman said. “I think there was miscommunication. All of the outstanding obligations have been brought current.”

What’s clear is the city of Glendale was just trying to collect on a bill that was due in June of 2020.

What also seems clear, according to extensive reporting done by the the Athletic’s Katie Strang in February of 2020, is that the team has been consistently deficient in paying its bills on time since Alex Meruelo assumed ownership in June of 2019, including to some of its players, who didn’t receive signing bonuses on time in 2020—another default the team tried to pass off as a “process failure.”

Strang also reported that the Coyotes had attempted to bully vendors who were owed money, debating invoiced items and grinding them down in the hopes they’d accept lesser payments just to get paid while faced with the significant, negative financial impact of the pandemic.

When we asked Bettman if was concerned about these patterns in the Coyotes dealings, he responded, “They’re fine, and they will be fine.”

“Sometimes when you take over a franchise that needs work, you uncover things you didn’t know about,” Bettman added. “And as you’re uncovering them you start questioning what things are legitimate and what things need to be addressed, and Alex Meruelo is working with the league through all of those. Let’s not make a problem where there isn’t one.”

It seems as though the Coyotes are nothing but a problem.

The last-placed team in the NHL has made the playoffs once since 2012. It has the lowest attendance in the league, and the lowest valuation of any of the 32 franchises, according to a recent report in Forbes.

The Coyotes have also been evicted from Gila River Arena following this season and, despite plans to build a new arena in Tempe, haven’t firmed up a new location to play in next season.

“There are a lot of options,” said Bettman. “My advice has been, let’s focus on the plan for the building that’s going to come, and there are plenty of options to deal on an interim basis. I don’t want to get into them now… I’m not concerned. We’ll deal with it. There are options that will work.”

The commissioner recently denied the team as for sale and, on Friday, affirmed there are no plans in place to relocate it to another market.

“Alex is committed, Alex has the resources and the Coyotes aren’t going anywhere,” said Bettman. “They’re going somewhere else other than Glendale, but it’s in the Greater Phoenix area.”

NHL rebounding financially

After suffering major losses since the onset of the pandemic, Bettman reported the NHL is bouncing back well.

“We will emerge from this stronger than we’ve ever been,” he said, adding the league is expected to bring in excess of $5 billion this season.

Bettman also reported that while the salary cap will remain relatively flat until escrow payments from players to the owners are completed over the two seasons following this one, the league is projecting a considerable increase in the future.

Naturally, we’ll be keeping a close eye on contract negotiations between now and then in expectation that there could be a flood of lucrative deals signed ahead of the 2024-25 season.

Meetings scheduled with Quebec

But the rebirth of the Nordiques doesn’t appear to be imminent.

While Bettman is scheduled to meet with provincial authorities in January and says he’ll keep an open mind as to what they intend to propose, there’s no concrete plan for a team in Quebec City.

“The issue is going to be: will we have a team that wants to relocate? At the present time, that’s not the case,” Bettman said. “Will we want to expand? As I sit here today, we have no plans to expand.

“But I’m happy to have the meeting and hear what the government of Quebec has to say.”

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