NHL teams playing in home cities gaining steam to start 2021 season

Fehr Bettman

Fehr Bettman

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket across Canada and the United States, the NHL reiterated in a Board of Governors teleconference update on Thursday that the target date to start the 2021 season remains Jan. 1.

Nothing has been written in stone – on either a format or start date – and the clock is ticking with training camps tentatively scheduled to begin in one month’s time for a New Year’s Day start.

Players, who also conducted their own NHL Players’ Association executive board teleconference update on Thursday, have not been provided a date to report to their respective cities.

The only tangible update, according to sources on both calls, is the growing appetite for teams to open the 2021 season in each of their home arenas rather than “hybrid” bubbles.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman discussed the details of the proposed hybrid bubbles earlier this week, a concept that TSN reported on back in September. They remain one avenue for hockey to return.

However, citing significant costs attached to operating the bubbles in addition to potential lost revenue with games staged in neutral sites, the preference is for each team to travel city to city to complete a shortened regular season. The NFL and MLB have both conducted their seasons in that fashion. The NHL spent an estimated $75 to $90 million to stage the 2020 Stanley Cup playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.

A city-to-city 2021 schedule would include temporary divisional realignments, including a likely one-off, all-Canadian division – which rabid hockey fans might consider the only gift of the pandemic. (Good luck predicting that division’s order of finish!)

Teams would be permitted to have fans in their arenas in limited capacities as dictated by local and regional health authorities. That would allow teams to generate marginal gate revenue, with the hope that capacities could expand as the season moves along and a vaccine becomes prevalent, along with recouping in-arena signage and advertising revenue via regional broadcasts.

Teams would likely travel to divisional opponents to play short series of games, think along the lines of a baseball schedule with two back-to-back games or three games in four nights before moving along to the next stop. This would reduce travel and players’ time away from families.

Just about the only certainty for the 2021 season is that it will not be an 82-game slate. There is no concept on the table that includes a full-length regular season. There are numerous schedule models ranging from 60 or 62 games to 56 and all the way down to 48 games, traditionally the minimum required for an accepted length in previous lockout-shortened campaigns.

With a shortened season ahead, NHL players have braced for a possible proration of salaries. They are already scheduled to be paid just 72 per cent of their stated salary for the 2021 season, with 20 per cent being paid back to owners for 2019-20 season losses, plus a 10 per cent salary deferral. (It’s 72 per cent because it’s 20 per cent off the top, minus 10 per cent of the remaining 80 per cent.)

To date, there has been no proposal tabled from the NHL to the NHLPA – and finances were not discussed on the Board of Governors call – but NHLPA members were told to expect an ask of increased salary deferral for next season rather than proration.

That would not change the amount of money players are paid, only when they are paid it, and would seemingly be a much more palatable option for union membership. But in exchange for helping owners’ cash flow outside of July’s ratified Collective Bargaining Agreement, NHL players would likely ask for a giveback in return.

What that might be remains to be seen. Nearly every economic projection sees the players’ debt to owners rising to north of $1 billion following the 2021 season based on the system’s designed 50-50 revenue split between players and owners.

The unknown is par for the course in 2020.

As cases rise across the continent, lockdowns will commence, like they did in Manitoba on Thursday – with gatherings restricted mostly to household members. All athletics facilities have been shuttered and the Jets would need an exemption to conduct a training camp in Winnipeg in mid-December.

That remains a big ‘if’ at this point, with many governors and owners wondering whether a Feb. 1 start date is more realistic.

The NHL has remained focused on a Jan. 1 start date because the league would ideally like to award the Stanley Cup by mid-July. A mid-summer ending would not only allow for U.S. television rights holder NBC to wrap coverage ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, but also allow for the NHL to resume a more traditional slate for the 2021-22 season and beyond – particularly with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics planned to interrupt that season’s schedule in February.

It was Mike Tyson who famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

To this point, the NHL and NHLPA have not formally made one, knowing full well that punch is incoming with the second coronavirus wave that’s walloping the continent.