Hockey became the latest sport to finalize a return during the coronavirus pandemic when NHL owners and players announced Friday they had approved an agreement to resume the season.
In separate votes, the NHL board of governors and the players association membership ratified the package deal of a return-to-play plan and a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement, the latter of which provides the league a comprehensive path out of the economic challenges raised by the pandemic. The extension is good through 2026.
The deals were tentatively agreed to Monday and approved nearly four months to the day since the NHL halted its season March 12 with 189 games remaining in the regular season.
With the coronavirus always a factor, the approvals mean that training camps can open as scheduled Monday and the season can resume with 24 teams, including the Lightning, in a playoff format Aug. 1.
Monday is also the deadline for players to opt out of participating with no penalty.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of players saying I don’t want to go,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “If one of my teammates says they don’t want to go, you respect their decision for whatever reason. We all want to keep our families safe.”
Games are scheduled to begin in two hub cities, announced Friday as Toronto and Edmonton, with 12 teams from each of the Eastern and Western conferences, including the Lightning in the East. The East teams will be in Toronto, the West teams in Edmonton.
The bottom eight teams in each group, based on points percentage when the season was halted, will play best-of-five series to advance to a 16-team playoff for the Stanley Cup.
The top four teams in each conference, which include the Lightning, will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding for the playoffs’ first round. The Lightning’s first seeding game will be Aug. 3 against the Capitals.
No fans will be at the games. There will be five or six games a day at the start, up to three at each site, which will be heavily cordoned off from the public. Teams will be quarantined from families and the general public during play at least for the qualifying round and first two traditional playoff rounds.
And for the first time in league history, a final four will be held in Edmonton to settle a championship later than ever with ramifications pushing back the start of next season to December or even January.
“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,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
The NHL is being cautious in its return. Games will be in Toronto and Edmonton through the qualifying and first two rounds of the playoff, with home-rink advantages for the Maple Leafs and Oilers conceded in a nod to television preferences.
The top four teams in each conference based on points percentage when the season was halted are Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.
The qualifying round series in the East are 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, and in the West 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 first round of the playoffs are to begin at each hub city Aug. 11. Teams will be re-seeded every round, and the remainder of the playoffs will all be best-of-seven series.
The union membership voted 502-135 in favor of ratifying the full labor and return-to-play package, Canada’s TSN TV network reported. The board of governors’ vote was unanimous among the 31 teams, reports said.
The labor-deal extension includes an agreement to send players to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026 — pending agreements with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation — and includes some salary deferrals that allow both sides to bear the brunt of losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and share in the benefits of an upcoming U.S. TV rights contract.
“This agreement is a meaningful step forward for the players and owners, and for our game, in a difficult and uncertain time,” union executive director Don Fehr said in a statement. “We are pleased to be able to bring NHL hockey back to the fans.”
Lightning round-robin schedule (determines playoff seeding)
Scotiabank Arena, Toronto; times, TV TBD
Aug. 3: vs. Capitals
Aug. 5: vs. Bruins
Aug. 9: vs. Flyers