Blittner’s Blue Line: Loss of Payment Due to COVID is Possible and A Dangerous Precedent

By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/

No Pay for you. No pay for you. And no pay for you. 

A report by Katie Strang and Michael Russo of The Athletic stated the NHL is contemplating withholding pay from unvaccinated players who miss games or can’t travel due to a positive COVID-19 test. 

The report on its surface isn’t surprising. The NFL already announced a similar set of protocols and punishments for the upcoming football season. 

What is worrying is how far the potential punishments may go. 

What’s stopping leagues and teams from eventually saying ANY player who misses a game due to ANY illness won’t get paid? This is an extreme example. But would you really be surprised if things went this way? 

We are living in a time where unprecedented policies and laws have been put in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen rights and various forms of access become restricted or altogether done away with. 

During the height of the pandemic, teams across all sports held player availability for reporters via zoom calls. Even now, the NHL last week sent a memo to its teams that “prohibits all organized corporate, community and charitable interactions with fans (handshake lines, fist bumps, autograph sessions, speaking engagements, etc.)”

For young fans, what’s the point of going to these events if they can’t interact with their favorite players? Yes, this is all being done in the name of safety and trying to curtail the continued spread of COVID-19 and its various strains. But at what point do these “temporary” changes become permanent? 

Possible Payment Withheld

Getting back to the issue of player payment, can the NHL really make the decision on its own to withhold pay from unvaccinated players who test positive or can’t travel due to local government restrictions? Surely the NHL would need the support and approval of the NHLPA to implement such a punishment?

And why would the NHLPA, which exists to protect the interests of the players, ever agree to such a drastic measure? 

We know, thanks to Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, that at least 85% of all NHL players are vaccinated. But what of the other 15%? Should the Union turn its back on part of its membership? And more importantly, would the Union really do such a thing? If so, what’s the point of having the Union in the first place?

A punishment such as docking a player’s pay because they’re unvaccinated and tested positive would surely lead to locker room turmoil across the NHL. Players who are fully vaccinated are not likely to be sympathetic to a player who has his pay docked for not being vaccinated and testing positive. In turn, that will cause strife throughout the locker room as the punished player will feel ostracized for following his right to decide what to do with his body. 

And a locker room filled with bickering is not likely to be a winning one. 

Meanwhile, where does it stop? With all the restrictions being put in place over the past 17 or so months, is it so improbable to think a team or teams might eventually take this even further and withhold pay from ANY players who are unable to play due to contracting ANY illness? Sure, it sounds crazy and implausible. But so too did playing without fans and look what happened. 

The United States Bill of Rights grants the media the right of “Freedom of The Press.” But the media had its rights curtailed during the pandemic and things are still not back to normal. So is it so inconceivable that players might soon have to adjust to previously unthinkable policies? 

It’s a situation that merits watching. 

Olympic Dreams No More?

As for the issue of NHL players going to the Olympics in February 2022, that may as well be a pipe dream at this point. 

Larry Brooks of The NY Post reported the NHL will not pay for COVID insurance at the Olympics or Olympic qualifiers. And, should a player contract COVID at one of these events and then miss a game(s) upon returning to the NHL, they will not be paid. The IIHF is also refusing to pay the price of COVID insurance for NHL players. So, while a formal decision regarding the NHL sending its players to the games in February has yet to be reached, it looks highly unlikely the league’s players will attend.

Jack Eichel Drama Gets a Twist

One player who likely will not be playing regardless of whether the NHL goes to the Olympics or not is Jack Eichel, who remains in a standoff with the Buffalo Sabres. Eichel and his camp insist the star needs neck surgery while the team is steadfastly refusing to allow him to go under the knife. So, a group of Rangers fans went ahead and bought a billboard in Buffalo.

Let’s see if the billboard has better luck in attempting to sway Sabres’ management into dealing its Captain. My guess is Eichel begins the season with the Sabres and the drama ricochets up ten-fold. 

Voices of The NHL

And lastly, if you haven’t already, you should really check out the new NHL book available on Amazon, entitled, “Voices of The NHL.” If you need some incentive to do so, here’s a couple examples of stories you’ll find in the book.

1) Calgary’s Rick Ball has been calling Flames games on TV since the 2014-15 season and just like many players, he worked his way up to the NHL by going through the minor leagues. That involved taking long bus rides from place to place. But one cold, snowy night, the bus very nearly left him to freeze in the middle of nowhere.

The team bus had stopped at a Bobs Big Boy in Spokane for burgers and while the players went to grab some patties, Ball went outside to call the radio station with that night’s game result. Only, as Ball was calling in, the bus — with the players back on board — started to pull away. Ball, in a panic, started to chase after the bus while thigh deep in snow and without his wallet, money or jacket (which were all on the bus). 

Eventually, Ball caught up to the bus thanks to a player who saw him running and when he got on board, he realized he never turned off his phone, so his whole swear-filled run was captured by the radio station.

2) Detroit’s Ken Daniels was able to experience something any hockey fan would give an arm for. He accompanied Scotty Bowman to the ESPN Zone for dinner in Colorado and had quite the laugh at Bowman’s expense. 

It was the height of the NCAA March Madness tournament and all Bowman wanted to do was watch the St. Louis Blues game, because that’s who the Red Wings were playing next. Instead, every TV in the place was tuned into March Madness and when Bowman caught sight of the score of one tournament game, he went on an expletive-filled rant because the tally was 5-2; not realizing that was a normal score for the beginning of a basketball game.

3) Nashville’s Pete Weber has been doing games for the team since its inception, but there was one in particular that rendered him incapable of uttering a coherent word.

While working a Predators-Sharks game in San Jose, Weber was paired with Terry Crisp on the team’s simulcast and when defenseman Cale Hulse kicked the puck out of the zone, Crisp misspoke and said something not suitable for air or print. Weber, as well as their Stage Manager and Radio Engineer, were all left bent over, hysterical laughing. Mind you, the game was still going on and the camera/microphone never stopped rolling. 

4) Philadelphia’s Jason Myrtetus is an outstanding pre-game/intermission/post-game host. He also happens to be responsible for a previously unsolved mystery at Fenway Park. You see, the Flyers and Bruins were scheduled to play in the 2010 Winter Classic at the home of the Boston Red Sox. So, the day before, there was a practice and some media availability. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Well, after the mundane events ended, Myrtetus and some others went wandering around the hallowed halls of Fenway, only to find their way into a fully loaded suite. And by fully loaded, we mean a suite filled with alcohol. Without incriminating himself or his cohorts too much, let’s just say that by the time they left, the suite was no longer fully loaded. Where did all the booze go? 

The Red Sox didn’t know, but perhaps the readers of “Voices of The NHL” can now give them the answer.

Categories: Hockey

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