TAMPA — For four months, questions swirled around the NHL. There weren’t many answers for most of that time.
Talk had been of possible empty arenas until March 11, when the first NBA player tested positive. The NHL paused its season the next day.
In the last two decades, the league has worked around lockouts of a full season and a half season. But there was no plan in place for what to do in case of a midseason shutdown.
The negotiations around returning to play, and then a revised and extended collective bargaining agreement, mostly took place between owners and players. Owners communicated with team CEOs, general managers and coaches, but the two parties at the virtual table were the league (representing owners) and the players association.
The Times talked with Lightning forward and NHLPA representative Alex Killorn, owner Jeff Vinik, general manager Julien BriseBois and coach Jon Cooper about their experiences through the process of getting the NHL back on the ice.
The player rep
In an average year, there’s not a whole lot to being a team’s representative to the players association. But this year, Killorn joked that, between his Dock Talk Instagram show and fundraiser as well as serving as the team rep, he was busier than during the season.
Killorn described at least two or three calls a week among the representatives from all 31 teams. Each call went over two hours, with each player asking questions from himself as well as his teammates.
Dealing with both the return to play and the CBA, separate issues that became very intertwined, made an already difficult process that much more challenging.
Then there were the conversations with his teammates — group texts, phone conversations, a few Zoom meetings — in which they peppered him with questions.
“It’s really tough, because a lot of the questions I was asked, I don’t have the answer to a lot of times,” Killorn said. “The people that (you would think) have the answers don’t have the answers, either.”
As the process went on, the answers came and the questions became more specific.
Killorn also became the public face of the team, a role that was fun as a social media influencer but less so when he was the go-to person to discuss each topic. When the Lightning were one of two teams to vote against the return-to-play format, he had to clarify that he was voting on behalf of his teammates, not just coming to a decision on his own.
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For Vinik, this was a one-step-at-a-time progression of questions and answers starting on March 12. He had a sense of what could and could not be answered at a given time and focused on the former, adapting the categories as circumstances changed.
“You get the answers and then more questions arise,” Vinik said.
Vinik, who is part of a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to the Times’ ownership company, echoed Killorn on the many issues that made this process more challenging.
“We had the shutdown, safety, the CBA, all the phases, quarantining, testing,” he said.
The league’s board of governors, on which owners represent most teams, held calls with commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly every other week. The consistency kept communication flowing well, plus Vinik would check in with Bettman outside of those calls, as well.
Internally, Vinik was frequently on the phone with CEO Steve Griggs and BriseBois, addressing the Lightning’s specific issues, including their pitch to be considered as a hub city.
“I have generally retained my optimism along the way,” Vinik said, “but with full understanding that we could be derailed. To some extent, the virus is in control, not us.”
The “cherry on top” of determining a plan to return to play is a four-year extension of the re-negotiated collective bargaining agreement. Vinik credits both the league and players association, led by Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, with coming together for the good of the game.
The general manager
Once a person reaches the general manager level in the NHL, they’ve seen a lot of things.
BriseBois said in almost any circumstance he can draw on his previous experience as some kind of template to proceed. At a minimum, he has someone he can call who can offer some thoughts in context. A pandemic that disrupts the economy and shuts down the league was not one of those circumstances.
Everyone else was in the same boat. His fellow GMs didn’t have any more answers than he did.
“Most of the time, I might have a call with a colleague and say, ‘These are the two issues I’m thinking about, these are the two issues I’d like to get help with,’” BriseBois said. “Then over the course of the conversation, he’d bring up six more that I hadn’t thought of before and we end up with more questions than answers.”
Most of the four-month pause continued in that vein. There never seemed to be answers, just more questions.
The first month was most difficult for Cooper, feeling the strain of the unknown.
But Cooper embraced the pause as an opportunity. He got on Zoom — about which he said, “I’m sure Zoom was invented way before this, but I didn’t know about Zoom.” — with his fellow Lightning coaches and then took a hard look at the team.
Then Cooper got on Zoom with more coaches outside the organization, in a way they don’t usually have an opportunity to, given the flow of “chaotic regular season” into the summer and the need to step away.
“Coaches got together on Zooms, whether it was NHL guys, juniors guys or college guys,” Cooper said. “We’d talk hockey. I thought, in a tough situation, coaches made the best of it. That kind of ate up a lot of the time and it was great.”