Every player, regardless of what league he calls home, wants the opportunity to play for a championship. But with no Calder Cup title for which to compete this season, 21 of the 28 American League teams that opted to play in the 2020-21 campaign will play their last games by early next week and break for the summer. But the seven teams that make up the Pacific Division will carry on with their own playoff. But instead of having eager participants, it’s a tournament that is seen by the players as an unpaid burden on them.
“Nobody wanted to play this thing,” a player for one team said. “It’s a grind. The league is paying our living expenses, but basically we’re paying to play.” A vote taken by the players affected by the decision bears that out. When the Professional Hockey Players’ Association canvassed its members on whether or not they wanted to extend the season for the Pacific Division playoff tournament, the vote came back 133-8 against. But the PHPA contends that the league and Pacific Division teams have essentially ignored the wishes of their players and will forge on.
When the AHL made the decision to play this season, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) had to be struck between the league and the PHPA, which was signed March 1 by AHL president Scott Howson and PHPA executive director Larry Landon. The agreement set out provisions for playing the season, which included a clause that provided only 48 percent of the salaries for players. It also included a provision for the playoffs, which reads: “Playoffs for the 2020-21 season will be at the sole discretion of the AHL. No additional compensation will be paid to the players for any playoff games…All decisions related to conducting the playoffs for the 2020-21 season remain at the sole discretion of the AHL, including without limitation, whether playoffs are conducted and, if so, whether some or all of the teams play any playoff games.”
Howson said he sympathizes with the plight of the players, particularly in light of the fact that they’re making less than half their salaries this season. But if both sides had decided before the season to scrap the playoffs, the players likely would have received only 42 or 43 percent of their salaries. There will be fans in the seats in Henderson and Bakersfield, but not enough to make it lucrative. The league will hold play-in games next Tuesday and Wednesday in Irvine, Calif., and the team that emerges from that portion will join the top three teams for best-of-three semifinals and final. The tournament will end by May 29, in part because Howson said the league doesn’t want players to have to stay in their apartments beyond the end of the month.
“It’s not perfect,” Howson said. “It’s squeezing (the players), it’s a time pressure for them and we understand that. I know they were disappointed with the salaries. I get that. But you could not make a business case for us playing this year. We’re playing because the NHL teams decided this is important. Last year in baseball, there was no minor league baseball and all those players lost a year of development and the NHL didn’t want that. It’s costing millions for the AHL to play this year.”
And while it’s true that players have had, and continue to have, the right to opt out of playing at any time, that’s where things get dicey. The vote conducted among the players was a secret ballot, but anyone opting out would have to be publicly identified. It’s difficult to imagine that a young player on an entry-level contract with NHL aspirations would opt out of playing. And there has been speculation that players are being pressured to play by the teams. “There will be 32 teams in the NHL next season,” Landon said. “The fact that seven teams want to play a game of intimidation to the hockey players they employ is a joke. If you’re good enough to play, you’re going to play. There are teams in the east that sympathize with the players in the west. If seven want to try to intimidate the players…that’s nothing but a crock of sh--.”
The players won’t be paid for the playoffs and if one of them gets hurt, his ability to collect workers’ compensation will be curtailed. That’s because compensation payments are made based on salary and players are making only 48 percent of their stipends. So an entry-level player in the minors on a salary of $70,000 is actually making only $33,600 and those playing in southern California are paying high rents. Exacerbating the problem is that, because of COVID, players cannot live together to reduce costs. Landon said it is another obstacle in what has been a very trying year for players who make a fraction of their NHL brethren.
“We’ve got guys in Belleville who have called us who can’t afford to get home,” Landon said. “If you’re on the low end of the 48 percent and you’ve spent money on living, it’s tough.”