When presented with the NHL’s 24-team restart plan last week, there was no easy answer for Kings players to choose.
They knew a “yes” vote effectively would end their season, given their position outside the top 24 in the standings.
But if too many teams said “no” in the NHL Players Assn. vote, the NHL’s most realistic restart plan to date could have been rejected.
It was an awkward position for a squad that had won seven straight games before the NHL suspended play March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most teams want their seasons to last as long as possible, and the Kings did too, even though they were not a playoff contender. Now, they were being asked to agree to a plan that would scrap their final 12 games.
“It was hard for us,” said defenseman Matt Roy, the team’s first-year union representative.
Yet, as Roy tallied the votes, the answers from his teammates became clear. Like every other bottom-seven team in the standings, the Kings approved a plan that ended their season in hopes it saves everyone else’s.
“As a team, we accepted what the league was suggesting,” Roy said. “We respect the fact that they’re trying to do what’s best for the league.”
Roy knew the stakes as well as anyone.
As the team‘s union representative — a role the 25-year-old defenseman inherited in February after former representative Alec Martinez was traded — he’d sat in on hours of union video meetings detailing the plan’s pros (a long-awaited resumption of play, a chance to complete the playoffs, ensuring the Stanley Cup is awarded this fall) and cons (a potentially unfair expanded playoff field, major modifications to the playoff format, and the abandoning of a regular season that still had roughly 15% of its games remaining).
Roy had a personal stake too, the season stoppage coming in the midst of a breakthrough first full NHL season in which he recorded 18 points and a team-high plus-16 rating.
“He was probably, and arguably with the coaching staff, our best defenseman,” assistant coach Trent Yawney said last month, suggesting that Roy’s playing time was set to increase down the stretch. “I mean, I’ve never had a guy that I’ve coached as a young player that I was looking [to give] more minutes.”
But, like his teammates, Roy could see the bigger picture.
“We obviously want to come back and return,” Roy said. “But we also don’t want to risk being injured for playing only a few games that don’t really get us anywhere.”
When the plan was proposed May 21 to the union’s 31-player executive board, comprised of representatives from each team, there was reportedly tense debate about the format. But when the votes were returned a day later, the players from all but two teams (the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lighting, both of whom will participate in the playoffs) said yes.
“It’s hard because every player is in a different situation, whether it’s in their career or financially,” Roy said. “Everyone’s got a different opinion. Right now, it’s just a matter of everyone coming together to reach some type of consensus and some type of plan to move forward.”
There is some benefit for the Kings. After two-plus months of uncertainty, during which players were told to stay game-ready, they finally can enter a true offseason. They can let their bodies heal. They can allow their minds to rest. And they can prepare for a 2020-21 season that hopefully won’t end with such a difficult decision.
“We’re focused on right now and the next couple months, staying safe and starting our summer workout program in preparation for later in the fall, in the winter,” Roy said. “Even though the Kings aren’t in it this year, we’re doing everything we can to prepare for next season.”