The NHL and its Players’ Association reached a tentative agreement Sunday night to resume the season.
Terms are tied to a labour agreement that is still being negotiated. The most important plank would allow NHL players to participate in the Winter Olympics in 2022 and 2026.
It is expected that the league will announce as early as Monday that the season will pick up with a 24-team playoff format at the end of this month in hubs established in Edmonton and Toronto.
Although Las Vegas was an early favourite to hold the games, it fell out of the race as its cases of COVID-19 rose. Edmonton and Toronto were selected from a list of 10 cities, including Vancouver, that were involved in a bidding process.
Ontario is still announcing about 150 new cases a day of COVID-19, Alberta hasn’t reached that mark since May 2. Alberta is also a leader in per-capita testing, and could keep players relatively isolated because the downtown home arena Rogers Place is linked by pedway to hotels and other amenities.
Vancouver had been in the running until health officials in British Columbia expressed concern about the possibility it could lead to a surge of the novel coronavirus, the cause of the severe respiratory infection that has swept across the globe. The United States has the largest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, as well as the most deaths.
The NHL suspended the regular season on March 12 as the disease spread. To get the attention of league officials, Edmonton and Toronto unveiled lavish plans that promised to protect the health of players.
Edmonton proposed setting up an Olympic-style village downtown around its new half-billion-dollar arena, Rogers Place. The Oilers Entertainment Group plans to build a wall that will prevent the public from penetrating a three- to four-block area in the Ice District where players will have free range.
Toronto countered by saying it would create a bubble at Exhibition Place, the lake-front property that is usually the home of the Canadian National Exhibition. Under Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s plans, there would be games played at Scotiabank Arena and the Coca-Cola Coliseum, with practices held at the team’s multisurface rink in suburban Toronto. MLSE promised it could establish all sorts of amenities for players, including setting up a drive-in theatre.
A week ago, the NHL said 26 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since the second phase of its return-to-play protocol started last month. The numbers include 11 positive results previously announced. The league said it is also aware of 11 other players testing positive outside of Phase 2 over the past three weeks.
Exhaustive testing procedures are expected to be part of the package finalized by the NHL and NHLPA.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press on Sunday that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have agreed on protocols to resume the season.
Daly said the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. A CBA extension is crucial to the process, and the league’s board of governors and players’ executive committee and full membership must still approve that and the return to play protocols to bring hockey back this summer.
If everything is ratified, it will end the pandemic-forced shutdown for 31 teams across North America. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.
Assuming approval from owners and players, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before travelling to two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was shut down March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.
Once play resumes, one player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.
The league will be in charge of testing players daily once they get to their game city.
With a report from The Associated Press