Like billions of others worldwide in this ongoing pandemic, Larry Landon is constantly reminded of the impact of the novel coronavirus. There are the countless tourist attractions, not far from his office in Niagara Falls and typically crowded 365 days a year, that are now shuttered until further notice. And the small grocery store he can see from his window where employees now herd quarantine-prepping patrons into long lines on the sidewalk, space them six feet apart per public health guidelines and permit no more than 20 to shop at any given time.
Then there is Landon’s work itself. As executive director of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, the union representing some 1,600 minor-leaguers at the NHL-affiliated AHL and ECHL levels, the former Montreal draft pick (eighth round, 1978) has been working from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day for the past week while wrestling the challenge of a lifetime. “This is unprecedented,” says Landon, 61. “Players are disappointed. There’s tons of emotion.
“But I get it, given what’s happened. It came at them out of nowhere,” he says.
On March 12, acting in lockstep with pro sports leagues across the globe, the ECHL suspended games for its 26 teams due to COVID-19. Three days later the league officially cancelled the rest of its season outright, dropping an unfortunate, if not necessary, hammer on its rank-and-file: Although players would have their immediate moving expenses reimbursed and continue to receive medical insurance through June 30—the result of a hastily bargained agreement with Landon and the PHPA—they would stop getting paid after Monday, March 16.
Aside from the obvious safety concerns, the decision came down to a matter of money. Effectively the Double-A of hockey, the ECHL isn’t populated with deep-pocketed owners like its counterparts at higher levels. Nor does it have the direct backing of the NHL, which instructed AHL owners to continue issuing salary during the hiatus. And although the average ECHL salary hovers around just $700 a week, several clubs simply couldn’t afford to keep paying players without simultaneously selling tickets, hosting promo nights and otherwise generating revenue from the various gameday sources that keep minor-league franchises afloat.
“I’m sure certain teams could’ve made a go of it,” commissioner Ryan Crelin says. “But on the whole, it wasn’t good financial sense. We are predominantly a spectator and fan-based league. And nobody was playing.”