The Tucson Roadrunners begin postseason play Tuesday, when they take on the San Jose Barracuda in a loser-goes-home opening game of the American Hockey League’s 2021 Pacific Division championship tournament.
All that is certain. But whether many of the players from the Roadrunners and the AHL’s six other Pacific Division teams even want to still be playing at this point, for that matter — and the risks associated with doing so — is much less clear.
The AHL announced April 29 that for the second consecutive season, it would not award the Calder Cup to a league-wide champion. Last year, the pandemic ended the 2020 season prematurely, and pushed the start of the condensed 2021 schedule months down the road.
The Atlantic, North, Central and Canadian divisions crowned their regular-season leaders as 2021 division champions. The Pacific Division, however, announced it would go a different route.
The Pacific Division playoffs include all seven teams — the first-place Henderson Silver Knights, second-place Bakersfield Condors, San Diego Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, Colorado Eagles, Ontario Reign and last-place Roadrunners. Tucson finished the regular season 13-20-3-0 with a despite a Pacific-worst .403 win percentage, yet have a chance to win the division.
But to what end — and at what risk?
Tony Androckitis of InsideAHLHockey.com reported last week that there were concerns among players, a prominent agent and the Professional Hockey Players Association about the risk associated with the mini-tournament. Agent Allan Walsh, who represents players at the NHL and AHL levels, referenced a poll of Pacific Division players conducted by the PHPA on his Twitter account. Of the players polled, 133 were against the tournament — and just eight were for it.
Walsh told the Star that there is a “tremendous amount of risk by going forward and playing” due to concerns over worker’s compensation insurance for players. Walsh said he’s aware of the PHPA, the union representing AHL and ECHL minor-pro hockey players across North America, “reaching out to a couple of worker’s compensation lawyers in California and Arizona” on the issue.
“In the event a player receives a serious injury during this exhibition tournament,” Walsh said, “the people who work in this field at the highest level on a day-to-day basis have all advised that the availability of any worker’s comp award would be dramatically reduced if not actually down to zero.”
Walsh represents roughly a half dozen players currently on AHL Pacific Division rosters, including Roadrunners forward Jan Jenik. He said the shortened season itself and the players’ reduced salaries because of the shortened season as factors in how worker’s compensation would be calculated.
A league spokesperson declined to “speak to benefits issues” in an email Monday to the Star. The spokesperson said the AHL and PHPA memorandum, signed at the start of the season, “set pro-rated salary terms in response to the abbreviated length of the season, and gave the league the right to schedule playoff games if teams opted to participate in postseason play.”
In a statement released shortly after the AHL’s April 29 announcement, PHPA executive director Larry Landon said he was “disappointed” in the decision.
“It disregards the wishes of the vast majority of the players within the Pacific Division,” Landon said in the statement. “These concerns were communicated to the league on several occasions.”
Landon added that “the Pacific Division chose to ignore the spirit of cooperation that has existed between the PHPA and AHL for many years and decided to proceed with additional games anyway.”
Roadrunners president Bob Hoffman said all seven Pacific Division teams were “fully aligned” in choosing to move forward with the playoff. Tucson played just 36 games in the shortened regular season; the extra playoffs give the organization a chance to continue to develop players. Of note: Six of the seven teams in the Pacific Division tournament, including the Roadrunners, are owned by their NHL affiliates.
“There was an agreement in place that gave us this opportunity to schedule a fun tournament that hopefully our guys will be competitive in and hopefully look forward to playing a few more games for themselves and their organizations,” Hoffman said.
A number of Tucson players expressed mixed emotions when asked about the new playoff. None explicitly said they didn’t want to play.
“It’s a little weird for everybody that you’re not really playing for anything, really,” said Roadrunners forward Frederik Gauthier, who has played in 177 games at the AHL level — and 170 in the NHL — over six professional seasons. “You’re just playing to play.”
Defenseman Kyle Capobianco, a three-time AHL All-Star with the Roadrunners, deflected the question entirely when asked about his feelings, or those of his teammates, on the tournament.
“Our focus is just on Tuesday and our one game, and then we’ll take it from there,” Capobianco said.
Forward Jeremy Gregoire and defenseman Cam Dineen, both in their third seasons in Tucson, were more upbeat.
“It’s an opportunity, that’s for sure,” Gregoire said. “Everybody is going to (get) their best out of it, and for us it’s starting with San Jose.”
Added Dineen: “Not every team in the league is playing in a playoff, a little tournament like this. So we have an opportunity to play in front of not only our staff but other teams’ staffs from around the league.”
Tucson coach Steve Potvin also used the word “opportunity.”
“Listen, it wasn’t an easy process for the coaching staff, the players, ownership, the league, players association. It was definitely a difficult time,” Potvin said, referencing the season’s late start. “From a coaches’ perspective, we just try to give perspective to the players.
“We get to play in the playoffs,” he added, the word “get” emphasized. “We’re the only division that’s going to be playing, so therefore you have a good opportunity to showcase yourselves. There’s a lot of guys no longer under contract next year, so there’s a lot of good opportunity for our guys to showcase their talents.”