Thoughts on hub cities, Olympics, and the impact of a flat salary cap

Caroline Cameron is joined by NHL Insider Chris Johnston to discuss the news that Toronto and Edmonton will likely be the hub cities for the NHL's return-to-play. Plus, can players choose to opt out if they don't feel comfortable coming back to play?

Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…

Appetizer: NHL players possibly going back to the 2022 Olympics

We’ll start with this tasty morsel off the top: Men’s hockey! The Olympics! Holding hands and skipping harmoniously through a meadow!

That might be a bit much, but I’m still excited.

Elliotte Friedman reported this week that Olympic participation was part of the ongoing CBA negotiations and that NHLers would compete at least in 2022 if an agreement is reached.

Olympic hockey is far more important to the health of NHL hockey than I think we generally appreciate. A huge percentage of both players and fans say that Olympic moments are among those that’ve impacted them most. It’s not just a short-term thing for the league about what it can do for them or their bottom-line (which is somewhere between “nothing” and “much worse than that”), but the Olympics are a long-term, lifetime, global thing.

Every four years, hockey has eyes around the whole world on the best our game can possibly look. That influence and those memories do more for the health of the game than any year of playoff hockey possibly could. They offer moments of aspiration for young kids, too. While everyone wants to win the Stanley Cup someday, tons of players dream about pulling on their country’s sweater and winning Olympic gold. (There’s also the whole “scratching an itch” thing, where fans are dying to know what an all-centre line of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon might look like in a meaningful game.)

With that, it’s worth noting I think the NHL had it right with not going to the 2018 Winter Games. There has to be more give from the International Olympic Committee to make it viable for the NHL, its players, and the owners. We’ll see how that whole “dealing with the IOC” side of things shakes out, but I do believe missing two Olympic Games in a row would be damaging for hockey’s popularity, at a time when people have more exposure and opportunity to play other sports. I’m pumped it seems like we’re going to avoid that future.

Main Course: Hub cities expected to be Toronto and Edmonton “winning” bids

I put “winning” in quotation marks, as not everyone will view welcoming 750 or so people from around the world into their city in the midst of a global pandemic as a “win.” The leadership in both cities do, though, as positive exposure and additional dollars will be headed to both Alberta and Ontario.

I like a lot about the selection of Edmonton and Toronto, namely:

• The worst-case scenario for the league is that it starts up the season and there’s an outbreak so bad that it has to re-turf the whole thing. You’d have to think that would officially end the season, which the NHL so badly wants to avoid for numerous (chiefly financial) reasons. And obviously from the players’ standpoint, a whole bunch of them getting sick is the worst possible outcome. So going to a place with a minimal amount of COVID-19 cases kinda makes sense, yeah? Even knowing the league believed the Vegas bubble situation was going to be the most locked down, it seems a little crazy that just going to the safest location (which would welcome the league) wasn’t priority 1A. In the end the league found the right answer here.

• I like that both hubs are in one country. Dealing with one government body is hard enough and still reasonably unpredictable; trying to guess the potential outcomes of both US and Canadian policies in the months to come seemed unnecessarily risky to me. There are players travelling from around the world to come “work” who will need work visas sorted out. Keeping it to one country simplifies things.

• Toronto is at least trending in the right direction. (The implementation of mandatory masks ahead of players getting to town is a nice safety bonus.)

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There are concerns with the selection of Toronto, of course. The virus is far from beaten around these parts, and I can’t think of a city on Earth where more players would have buddies/girlfriends/families that will be in immediate proximity, but technically outside the bubble. The temptation to stray out and socialize will be strong, and I don’t think that’s a small side note.

Toronto is appealing for many other reasons, though granted those reasons feel a few tiers of importance below what’s mentioned above. It’s great travel for the largest amount of people, the time zone is television friendly, and the resources needed to put on big hockey events (and broadcast them) are plentiful. If the league and city can pull this all together safely, there certainly exists the possibility of it all being a big win. That is some “if” though. How many positive cases there are, how they’re handled and even how they’re reported is going to be as noteworthy most days as the action on the ice.

One less-important thought I can’t shake is the amount of work that would need to be done over the next few weeks to make any sort of hub viable. For several years my Dad hosted the Hockey Greats Fantasy Camp in Kelowna, which I all but ran towards the end of my college days and into my pro days. It was about a dozen former big-name players — some of whom could be challenging — and a few dozen paying guests. They joined for four days of hockey, golf, house-boating and meals, all at a resort hotel. The sheer volume of work involved with accommodating 40-some people was staggering. From tiny details like having clipboards and pens at check-ins, down to specific individual needs…it took years off my life trying to keep it all together.

To organize something of the hub city magnitude, combined with medical screenings and surely never-seen-before complications, I can barely wrap my head around trying to make all the parts move in a cohesive machine. I know it will get done in some capacity — they have a few more bodies than we did with the fantasy camp. But I do expect there to be weird mishaps in the coming weeks. The only hope is that they’re compromises of convenience, not health.

Dessert: The NHL’s salary cap is likely to remain flat in the coming seasons, with the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons being at $81.5 million, and the 2022-23 season being $82.5 million

Take it away, Friedge.

Well that’s not a very tasty dessert, is it? It sounds like this will happen without amnesty buyouts too, which basically means teams that were up against the cap previously…boy, are they up against it now. So much for best laid plans.

Take your own team’s situation into consideration here, and parse that info as you will. Can the Leafs afford another Freddy Andersen deal now? (Not without trading someone else, they can’t.) What do the Blues do about Alex Pietrangelo’s expiring deal? Teams with salary cap space and flexibility are poised to make some major gains in the months to come here.

How about a sweeter note to end on here, since this is dessert. Please enjoy JT Brown’s flow, as compiled by his wife (and a happy birthday to Brown, too):

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