TAMPA, Fla. -- They made a promise.
That’s the only reason the NHL is still engaged in discussions about whether or not they’ll be sending their players to the Beijing Olympics at this late hour.
Had the NHL and NHL Players’ Association not committed to returning to the 2022 and 2026 Games as part of the memorandum of understanding they signed last summer, it’s difficult to imagine the conversations remaining ongoing as the calendar flips to July.
A May resolution had been targeted.
“It’s reaching the point where we’re getting concerned about the impact on next season because of the uncertainty,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday during his annual state of the league address.
The root of the biggest hurdles can be tied to the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 situation itself. The length of potential quarantines upon arrival in China -- and thus the length of break needed to the NHL schedule -- plus insurance concerns, whether or not players’ families will be permitted to attend and the like.
It also hasn’t helped that the International Olympic Committee has its hands full with the Tokyo Games rescheduled from last summer to next month. That prevented some of the Beijing conversations from starting sooner.
We are down to about two weeks, maybe a little bit more, for the remaining issues to be resolved. The NHL drafted two possibilities for a 2021-22 regular-season schedule, one including an Olympic break and one without it, and plans to release the final version publicly before the entry draft on July 23.
“I would hope that we will continue to work through the issues and know where we are well in advance of that,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
There was not a hopeful tone to the Olympic discussion as the Stanley Cup Final got underway at Amalie Arena.
Were this not so important to the players -- particularly the young stars of the league who grew up watching NHLers in best-on-best Olympic competition -- the discussions might never have even reached this stage. Team owners still aren’t keen on the disruption to the season. And it's in everyone's best interest to get the 2021-22 schedule out as soon as possible so that tickets can start being sold and business kicked into a higher gear coming out of the pandemic.
But… a deal’s a deal.
“With the future Games in Beijing and the continued uncertainty with the virus and the Games being halfway around the world, it’s not necessarily an ideal Games to elect to go to,” said Daly. “Having said that, we negotiated in good faith with the players’ association last summer. We agreed that if the conditions were right and we could reach agreement on all the material issues that we would commit and support going to the Olympics and that remains our position.”
Daly did mention that they’ve found agreement on more basic issues. Until recently there had been a hopeful tenor around the direction of talks. And the NHL, NHLPA, IOC and International Ice Hockey Federation remain fully engaged in discussions.
But the drop-dead deadline is approaching fast.
“We continue to be in uncharted territory to a certain extent with respect to the COVID situation and what it means and what it’ll be like come February in Beijing,” said Daly. “So there’s a lot of uncertainty and unknowns that we’re trying to grapple with and that takes time.”
Time is not on their side.
Here are five other things we learned during Monday’s state of the league address:
1. The next NHL season will look much more normal than this one. There will be an all-star game in Las Vegas, plus three outdoor games -- the Winter Classic at Minnesota’s Target Field on Jan. 1, a Stadium Series game at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium on Feb. 22 and a to-be-determined Heritage Classic game in Canada in March.
2. Some degree of baseball-style scheduling is here to stay. With a return to the previous scheduling format teams won’t play each opponent as frequently as they did this season, but there will be some instances where teams play multiple games in the same city on the same road trip. That reduced travel demands and wear-and-tear during this COVID campaign. “That is something that some of our teams have embraced and it certainly makes sense in some of the travel situations we see. So I do believe we’ll incorporate it on an increased basis going forward,” said Daly.
3. Advertisements on sweaters may be in our future. Other leagues have already taken the plunge and it’s a clear way to generate new business. Bettman said it’s not something we’ll see in 2020-21 -- helmet ads will remain, though -- but he notably didn’t rule out the possibility in future seasons: “I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s inevitable. It’s something that makes good sense for us to be considering and looking at, but as I said certainly not for next season. What happens beyond then I’m not prepared to predict but it is something we’re looking at.”
4. Legal sports betting won’t lead to more transparency from coaches and teams. We’re still going to have to live with upper- and lower-body injury descriptors. Some head coaches will continue to keep an air of mystery around their starting goalie that night. While it’s long been speculated that a move towards gambling would require more honesty around lineup decisions, Daly said those types of changes are not being contemplated. “People ask whether our sports betting partners have requested it, have expressed any concerns. With regard to our current policies none of that has been done and at the end we have to have policies that facilitate the game on the ice because the game is what’s most important and we’ll continue in that vein,” he added.
5. The playoffs aren’t being expanded. The commissioner appreciates this topic about as much as he does a trip to the dentist. While some team owners see an opportunity to expand the playoff field with a 32nd franchise joining the league, Bettman remains steadfastly against the idea. “You can find a general manager or an owner who might suggest it’s something that he’s thinking about or he might think is a good idea, but at the end of the day we think our competitive balance is extraordinary,” he said. “We don’t see a need to change it and having a 50-50 balance with a 32nd team -- half the teams making it, half not -- is the right balance.”