It has become a running joke in hockey circles: Every day opens with the idea that we should hear something about the NHL’s plans to return to play today or tomorrow.
Why is this taking so long?
In short, because it has about as many layers as an onion. The NHL and the players association are concurrently negotiating training camp safety protocols, game safety protocols, the two hub cities where play would resume and a new collective bargaining agreement, the last of which was already the plan for the offseason before the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the league’s finances.
At one point, it sounded like we’d get a hub cities announcement first. But that process has taken longer as the coronavirus situation continues to change, and the NHL is now nine days away from its target date to start training camps for a season resumption. So the idea is now for one massive announcement.
Each individual piece has a lot of nuances, and the pieces are interconnected. This is the time to sweat the details and get them right.
This discussion feels like two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes one forward and two back.
First, Las Vegas and Edmonton were favorites to serve as hub cities, then Las Vegas and Vancouver, then Las Vegas and Toronto, now Edmonton and Toronto.
Because the coronavirus situation is constantly changing, commissioner Gary Bettman has said from the start that the league didn’t want to make this decision too early and then end up in a bad situation.
Vancouver dropped out when the British Columbia government and the league disagreed about what would happen if/when players tested positive for the virus when the season resumes. As virus case numbers have increased, Las Vegas has dropped down the list.
Canadian TV network TSN reported Wednesday that Edmonton and Toronto were the current favorites for hub cities.
Edmonton has made sense from the start. The city has had a very low number of virus cases, the Oilers’ arena is one of the largest in terms of dressing-room space and team amenities, and there’s plenty of practice space. The biggest detraction seems to have been a lack of player excitement about the city.
Toronto wasn’t initially among the favorites but reportedly came back with a stronger bid, including a tighter bubble for teams to operate in.
The wish list around coronavirus safety is a bit of an oxymoron: a tight bubble for the teams to stay in with lots of options. Players made it clear early they didn’t want to be restricted to hotel rooms and the arena in their hub city.
There are many questions about how much players could do safely. The idea of buying out a few restaurants to give players options has been suggested, as has NHL-only access to golf courses.
Then there are the issues of how to test and what happens in the case of positive tests. The league does not want to shut down the playoffs for a few positive tests. But what is the number that would raise serious concerns?
The number of players and staff members who would have to test positive to shut down a facility was not included in the Phase 2 protocol of voluntary workouts. Last month, the Lightning shut down Amalie Arena and its practice facility, the TGH Ice Plex in Brandon, for five days after three unidentified players and an unspecified number of staff members tested positive.
The labor deal
The collective bargaining agreement has been a topic of discussion since the current version was signed, ending the latest lockout in 2012. It was already on the docket for this offseason and became even more important as the pandemic forced everyone involved to look at finances.
The NHL and union have a revenue-sharing system. To oversimplify things: A portion of each player’s paycheck is held in escrow and then either paid to the players or the owners at the end of the season to achieve a 50/50 revenue split.
The players have been delaying receiving their final paycheck of this season while they wait for a resolution on this year’s finances. They do not want to bear the weight of revenue lost due to the pandemic, and it gives them a chance to assess the system as a whole.
There are also issues of what to do with the salary cap, which has been tied to league revenue, and a possible salary deferral.