On March 11th, 2020, as the Ottawa Senators limped toward the finish line of another tough NHL season, they closed out a western road trip with a 3-2 loss in LA. Since then, the team has done a lot, including another massive roster renovation. What they haven’t done since then – as the calendar turns to December – is play an actual hockey game. COVID took out their final 11 regular-season games and, even though the NHL invited 8 more teams than usual to their playoff party, the Senators weren’t able to make it.
So, when will the Sens actually play another hockey game?
For many weeks, the NHL has been trumpeting January 1st as their probable return date. But, with each passing day, that looks more and more unlikely. Last year, the Sens began camp on September 12th and started the regular season on October 2nd. That’s three weeks of preparation at a far more typical point in time. Now, in the midst of this COVID gong show, all bets are off.
Even if they announced a return to play today, teams would need a few days to get players together from all over the world. Then it’s straight into a 14-day quarantine. After that, you’d need at least 7 to 10 days for training camp, with battles for jobs, learning and practicing systems, and maybe an exhibition game or two. The league took a four-day break for Christmas last season so that may need to be factored in as well.
So, at this point, a January 1st start date seems nearly impossible, even if the NHL had labour peace.
Of course, that ship has sailed too. They thought they had labour peace on July 10th. The NHLPA and NHL ratified a four-year extension to their collective bargaining agreement (through 2025-26) and their Return to Play Plan. To help out with COVID challenges, the players agreed to defer 10% of their salaries to be repaid in 3 payments over 3 years (2022-24). On August 1st, the NHL then ushered its teams into playoff bubbles and successfully completed their seasons in front of intentionally empty arenas and, as you’d expect in the heart of summer, record low TV viewership.
It appears now that the NHL’s owners entered into that arrangement, thinking COVID would be cleared up by now. This just in: It isn’t. And the CBA is now, effectively, unlocked and wide open again. On November 18th, the owners asked the players to defer an additional 13% of their salaries. Combine that with an escrow payment of 20% (agreed to in the CBA) and a pro-rated salary (if the season is reduced from 82 games), and it’s safe to say the players aren’t happy right now.
But the players don’t have the leverage they normally do in these disputes. They can usually threaten to take their puck and go home. But, this time around, that threat isn’t remotely intimidating. With NHL rinks expected to remain mainly empty, there are some owners who will actually save money if there’s no season at all. What’s more, the millionaire players will see zero sympathy from fans during these challenging times.
Assuming it can happen safely, everyone wants to return to play, especially after last season’s four-month shut down at the most important point in the campaign. While the NHL does have a hearty, loyal fan base it’s a bad idea to give their customers a chance to find other passions and discover other things to do with the excessive time and money they’d be saving. The players will eventually cave, as they always do, and probably sooner rather than later. After all, it’s a pay deferral. Not a pay reduction.
But the window has almost certainly closed on January 1st as a return date. It’s far more realistic to predict that the new-look Ottawa Senators will end their 10-month off-season by mid to late January.
By Steve Warne