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Mike Harrington

As season looms, Sabres player rep Jake McCabe keeps close watch on opt-out decision

Mike Harrington

Candidate for one of the busiest summers among the Buffalo Sabres? Jake McCabe is high on the list.

"Got married, had a lot of other weddings to go to and signed a contract, so it was a pretty good summer," the defenseman cracked Saturday afternoon after practice in KeyBank Center.

McCabe and his wife, Gaby, were married in Madison, Wisc., where they both went to college, and honeymooned in Hawaii. Then McCabe avoided arbitration and got a two-year, $5.7 million contract as a nice wedding present.

"Nobody wants to go through arb, both player and team," McCabe said. "It was good to get it done before we went there and I'm extremely happy to be back here for two more years."

McCabe has certainly been one of the Sabres' more dependable defensemen the last four years but injuries, including a broken thumb and shoulder surgery, have ended his last two seasons prematurely. He played 77 and 76 games, respectively, in his first two years but only 53 and 59 in the last two.

How important is it for him to get back to that 75+ games level?

"Hey, why are you cutting me short seven games?" said a smiling McCabe. "I have 82 as my goal. That's very important to me. I've worked really hard over the summer to stay healthy and get healthier and I feel really good going into this camp."

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As the summer wore on, McCabe got down to serious business. He's worked with his personal trainer to be ready for the season — and he's also kept his eyes and ears on a potential seismic shift in the relationship between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association.

McCabe is the Sabres' representative on the NHLPA Executive Board and was at last week's gathering in Chicago where the board met with Executive Director Donald Fehr to discuss its options regarding an opt-out clause in the collective bargaining agreement signed to end the 2013 lockout.

Sunday — Sept. 15, 2019 — is the deadline for the PA to opt-out of the current deal, which is supposed to expire in 2022 (The choice can actually  be made Monday so it comes on a business day). If that's the decision, the contract would expire next year and it could squarely put the 2020-21 season in lockout jeopardy. The NHL announced on Aug. 30 it was not opting out, would prefer to keep the current deal and perhaps even work out an extension.

"We have 700 players in the league and it's important for all of us to be on the same page and inform each other of our options," McCabe said. "That's how it's been the last week or so, getting everyone informed before we do make a decision."

Escrow is the No. 1 sore spot for players today. Essentially, players have a portion of their contracts taken out of their paychecks and then refunded to them at the end of the season based on the growth of hockey-related revenues and the salary cap after the contractually mandated 50/50 split of revenues with the owners is achieved.

But that refund has been disappearing and some players are complaining of upwards of 13 percent of their salaries being taken out now that bigger deals, especially front-loaded ones, are being handed out by some teams. And those are being negotiated even though revenues are not growing at the same rate.

The escrow issue really came to the forefront when Chicago captain Jonathan Toews flatly told the Arlington (Ill.) Daily Herald at the end of last season in an article published Aug. 31, "I'm no financial expert. All I see is that I've signed a contract and to me it's not exactly being honored. So I don't care what business you're in — to me that's kind of ridiculous."

Escrow and a more defined international schedule, including a decision on the 2022 Beijing Olympics, are clearly the players' key issues. NHL revenues for 2017-18 are reported to be in the range of $4.8 billion and need to keep growing. By comparison, revenues in the NBA that season were pushing $8 billion.

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"You can talk about escrow all you want but at the end of the day, the league doesn't make enough money," McCabe said. "Obviously nobody likes escrow. Nobody likes money coming off your paycheck on every pay stub. It's an imperfect system right now. If we make more money as a whole league in general, it would go a long way."

At least week's Player Media Tour in Chicago, held the two days after the NHLPA meetings, one big talking point was how hockey players are loathe to market themselves especially in the manner that is done in the NBA. It's just not in the DNA for most hockey players. But there are exceptions: New Jersey defenseman P.K. Subban is certainly an industry unto himself, and Toronto's Auston Matthews has branched into modeling and is the cover boy for the NHL20 video game.

"If a guy wants to be more outspoken in hockey, I say go for it. Nobody is holding you back," McCabe said. "I'm not a guy out to market myself. I go about my business every day and enjoy doing things that way. ... I like to live a private life but if someone doesn't want to be as private and wants to market themselves, great. That's just what the personalities are in hockey.

"Then you look at P.K. Subban, he markets himself great and that's great for the game. Awesome. Everyone wants revenue to go up. That's one thing players and owners agree upon. They want more money in the league so we can all make more."

The NHL is hopeful for even bigger future revenues as Seattle joins the league in 2021, and a new U.S. television contract will be negotiated in the next couple of years that's likely to far exceed the $200 million annual outlay NBC is currently paying the league.

"The game is going in the right direction and I would love to be here in six years in front of you guys and not have to talk about escrow," McCabe said. "Hopefully the PA and the league work together to grow the game. That's another big thing that I worry about: Does the NHL put enough resources into growing the game? Whether it's international play or what have you. It's an interesting process to be part of, that's for sure. There's a lot of ways to look at it and a lot of options to consider."

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