TORONTO — The NHL remains on course to resume its pandemic-delayed season north of the 49th parallel later this summer, and has the labour peace it needs to ride out the unprecedented economic storm brought on by COVID-19.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association announced Friday the return-to-play protocols — featuring Toronto and Edmonton as hub cities — and a four-year extension to the current collective bargaining agreement have been ratified.
The NHL board of governors and the union’s full membership gave the documents, which were tied together in an all-or-nothing bundle, the thumbs up in separate votes.
Bringing the hubs to Canada, where coronavirus infection rates are largely under control, proved to be the logical choice after a significant spike in cases across the United States in recent weeks.
“While we have all worked very hard to try to address the risks of COVID-19, we know that health and safety are and will continue to be our priorities,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. ”We know that all of our fans are excited about our return to the ice.”
Training camps for the 24 teams primed to compete in the league’s blueprint to kickstart the 2019-20 campaign that was suspended March 12 are scheduled to begin Monday in each franchise’s home market.
The plan will then see Eastern Conference clubs report to Toronto on July 26, while those from the Western Conference will head to Edmonton before the games resume Aug. 1.
Once in Canada’s largest city and Alberta’s capital, players are set to be kept away from the general public in so-called “bubbles” that include strict health measures, daily testing, and mostly confine teams to hotels and empty arenas.
The extension of the current CBA, which was scheduled to expire in September 2022 and now runs through at least the 2025-26 season, provides both players and owners clarity on a number of challenging financial realities caused by COVID-19.
It also give the green light for negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation on participation at the 2022 and 2026 Winter Games. The NHL skipped the 2018 Olympics after taking part in five straight between 1998 and 2014.
The salary cap’s upper limit will remain at US$81.5 million in 2020-21 and stay there until hockey-related revenue returns to $4.8 billion — this season’s projected total prior to the pandemic. Players have agreed to defer 10 per cent of next year’s salaries, and have owners pay that back over three consecutive seasons starting in 2022-23.
“This agreement is a meaningful step forward for the players and owners, and for our game, in a difficult and uncertain time,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said. “We are pleased to be able to bring NHL hockey back to the fans.”
Escrow payments, a consistent thorn in the side of players that guarantees a 50/50 split of HRR with owners, will be capped at 20 per cent in 2020-21, and decrease throughout the deal. If teams are still owed money following the 2025-26 campaign, the CBA will be extended another season.
The agreement marks the first time since Bettman was hired in 1993 that the NHL has bridged two CBAs without a work stoppage. Both the 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons were cut to 48 games because of lockouts, while the 2004-05 campaign was completely wiped out.
“It was pretty civil,” Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat, his team’s NHLPA rep, said of negotiations. “We’re happy to get things going.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was the most outspoken politician with regards to having his province host one of the hubs, pointing to a low infection rate and Edmonton’s facilities.
“It’s the obvious choice to bring the NHL to Edmonton,” Kenney said on Twitter last month.
He also penned a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in hopes of securing a waiver for the NHL when it came to Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the country. The federal government approved the league’s proposal of a cohort quarantine last month, granting an exception that paved the way for Toronto and Edmonton to get the nod as hubs.
Each team’s travelling party will be capped at 52, including a maximum of 31 players.
Much like Kenney, Ontario Premier Doug Ford supported the idea of Toronto’s hub potential, as long as it could be done safely.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said recently he was impressed with the league’s plans.
“They had incredibly detailed disinfection and health protection measures that were in place even within the bubble to make sure they covered every angle they possibly could from the standpoint of making sure they met our public-health objectives,” Tory said.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, said the NHL choosing to hold all games in Canada reduces the risk, but it’s far from a fool-proof endeavour.
“We’d be blind to think that there isn’t COVID-19 in Canada, there’s just significantly less of it here compared to parts of the U.S.,” he said. ”Everyone has to pay close attention to COVID-19 because even with the best laid plans, there still can be small weaknesses that might be exploited by this virus.”
Vancouver was the other Canadian city originally in the hub running, along with seven American markets, before the provincial government expressed concerns about the NHL’s protocols with regard to health and safety.
Ford was asked prior to Friday’s announcement why the plan worked for his province when it didn’t for British Columbia.
“They have very stringent rules and regulations for their players,” Ford said of the NHL. “When they told me (players are) getting tested every single day, I’m no medical professional, but I don’t think they need testing every day. Maybe every third day or whatever.
“I think people would like to see a few hockey games on television.”
The 24-team format — which includes every Canadian franchise, save for Ottawa — will see the top-4 clubs from both the East and West play mini-tournaments to determine playoff seeding, while the other 16 will battle in a never-before-seen qualifying round.
Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia will compete for the No. 1 slot in the East, while defending Cup champion St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas will do the same out West.
The East’s best-of-five qualifying series include No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 New York Rangers, No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus. In the West, the matchups are No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Arizona, No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Minnesota and No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg.
The four winners of the best-of-five matchups in each conference will then be pitted against the top-4 seeds to fill out the usual 16-team playoff bracket. The league says Oct. 4 is the last possible date for the Stanley Cup final.
There could, however, still be some choppy waters before the 2019-20 season can actually resume.
Players won’t be quarantined during training camp, but instead asked to practise physical distancing when not at the rink in hopes isolation and testing will be enough to avoid any outbreaks.
Of the 396 NHLers tested at team facilities between June 8 and Monday during voluntary workouts, 23 results — in the neighbourhood of six per cent — came back positive. The league said it’s also aware of 12 other positive tests for players not taking part in those optional sessions.
That’s on top of 10 other positive tests announced in the spring.
The NHL has awarded the Stanley Cup every year since 1893, except for 1919 because of the Spanish flu outbreak and in 2005 when the lockout scratched the entire season.