The NHL appears to have a strategy for the new 2021 season, reportedly deciding on a 56-game campaign that would start January 13th. The chess pieces began to move on both sides yesterday once the owners reassured the players they would not reopen the Collective Bargaining Agreement they settled on back in July. Last month, it’s believed the owners tried to circle back on the deal, asking the players to defer a bigger chunk of their salaries and then also dump more money into an escrow account. Changing the escrow payment was a real sore spot for the players but multiple reports now indicate that the request has been withdrawn.
Nothing is fully finalized, of course. Not while COVID-19 lingers and remains such a major safety issue for players, employees and fans. In fact, now that the league’s financial differences have been squared away, the fate of the new season probably rests mostly with public health and government officials. How will the league deal with the extra risks associated with travel? How many fans will be allowed to attend games? How many will even want to? Even though the world began rolling out the very first vaccines today, it will still be many months before it arrives here, en masse, to the general public.
In the meantime, the NHL is focusing on the matters it can control, hoping to get everything settled by the end of the week. If they do, training camps will likely begin shortly after the holidays – probably January 2nd. Non-playoff teams like the Senators, who haven’t played since March 11th, will probably get a few days head start to knock off the extra rust of a 10-month absence. That layoff isn’t as bad it sounds. Almost every player has been training and skating for some time. The big challenge for Ottawa will be getting everyone on the same page. Returning players will need a refresher course and there could be as many as 13 players who weren’t full-time members of the club last season. Coach D.J. Smith will have his hands full. And he’ll appreciate every extra day of camp he’s given.
Whatever the new, seasonal game plan looks like, two-thirds of the league’s owners must approve it and that’s the one possible internal roadblock: owners with cash flow troubles, who aren’t willing to weather this storm. Their arenas will be empty (or mostly empty) for every home game and now there’s no financial help coming from the players’ side. Sure, the NHL has an excellent TV deal, at least by its standards. But it’s not the NFL, which has TV money to burn and doesn’t need to actually sell tickets to turn a profit. On its own, the NHL’s TV arrangement simply doesn’t inject enough revenue for every owner to pay all their bills. So, there will absolutely be some teams who vote not to play this season at all. Are there more than ten teams like that? We’ll find out soon enough.
But getting this bad blood with the players out of the way was absolutely crucial. We already know, from fairly recent memory, what labour disputes can do.