These locked-in dates are crucial to salvaging the NHL season.
Establishing July 10 as the target to open mandatory training camps allows players to start making decisions about when to travel back to their playing cities, at least for those not waiting for more clarity on quarantine restrictions. It arms the teams with a key piece of information to start putting the wheels in motion on return-to-play planning that is shifting from theoretical to very real.
And, for the industry as a whole, Thursday’s announcement was the most encouraging sign yet that we’re going to see the Stanley Cup playoffs staged this summer — assuming the health and safety conditions allow for it.
An agreement between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association on the start date for Phase 3 basically amounts to a statement of intent since it establishes a deadline for those parties to work through the remaining issues.
They’ve basically left themselves until the end of June to finalize a return-to-play agreement to vote on. To this point the owners and players have only ratified the 24-team format that will be used if the season resumes. They will still have a say in whether that
actually ends up happening.
Before any voting happens, the to-do list looks like this:
• Get clarity from the Canadian government on whether a 14-day quarantine will continue to apply to NHL players entering the country, which directly affects whether Toronto, Edmonton or Vancouver can be chosen as a hub city and whether Canadian-based teams might choose to move their training camps to the U.S.
• Finalize the two hub cities where games will be played.
• Reach agreement on the collective bargaining issues pertaining to a return to play, which include critical dates, the 2020-21 salary cap, a potential cap on escrow and other contractual matters.
• Establish protocols that govern Phases 3 and 4, which include testing, rules governing those who produce a positive result, living conditions in the hub cities, family visits and roughly a thousand other considerations, both big and small.
That’s all expected to be bundled into a big package for approval by the end of June. Once we get there, it will be the first in a line of moments of truth because it will officially signify whether the league and its players are going ahead with training camps, exhibition games and progressing towards resuming a season that’s been on pause since March 12.
By comparison, Thursday’s announcement about camps opening July 10 was more of a symbolic step forward in that it finally established a timeline for all of these things to happen.
“That’s kind of what we’ve been waiting for,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “I think if you ask most players what was the hardest part about [this pause] it was the uncertainty.”
A notable subtext to the return-to-play decisions is that negotiations on a CBA extension have started as well. The sides are looking at a potential four- or five-year extension to an agreement currently set to expire in September 2022 and don’t necessarily have to hammer out all of the details before the puck drops again.
Perhaps we’ll see them reach a memorandum of understanding on key issues, though.
After weeks where seemingly no progress was made towards a return, it’s been a big few days. Players began returning to team facilities for small-group workouts on Monday and no doubt will be joined by greater numbers of teammates in the days ahead as those currently in Europe and other parts of North America make their way back to playing cities.
The quarantine issue is a major point of emphasis for the Canadian-based teams, particularly since they’d originally been hoping to receive clarity from the federal government by the end of last week. There is optimism that restrictions could be eased so that a NHL facility would be considered part of a player’s safe zone under quarantine — which would both open the door to players on the six returning teams to get back and participate in Phase 2 while also keeping open the possibility of a playing hub being based here.
Contingency plans are already in place if that doesn’t happen.
Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis this week that he’s willing to consider a U.S.-based training camp. Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal have investigated the possibility as well.
At least they all now have a date to inform those decisions and more reason than ever to believe the planning won’t go for naught. The NHL is inching towards a resumption. It gets closer and closer with each hurdle cleared.
“I do believe that we will play,” said Rielly. “I’ve kind of always had that train of thought, it’s just kind of a matter of when. … I’ve tried to keep the attitude that we’re coming back and playing and try to be positive.
“Hopefully that can keep going here between now and July 10 and then on from there.”