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NHL, NHLPA look for new CBA to “meet the challenge” amid Covid-19

Donald Fehr (l), executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, and Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

As Covid-19 has fundamentally altered nearly every aspect of the sports industry, the National Hockey League and NHL Players Association are looking for their new labor deal to “meet the challenge” of not only the current moment but also its aftermath.

The league and union have each ratified a comprehensive deal that only solidifies the 24-team plan to resume play in the Canadian markets of Edmonton and Toronto, but also extends their existing collective bargaining agreement by four years and through at least the 2025-26 season.

“I’m pretty sure there’s going to be unanticipated events and perhaps even unintended consequences. But I do think this agreement meets the challenge and the next challenge is going to be to implement it both in the short-term and in the long-term,” said Don Fehr, NHLPA executive director. “There’s a lot in this agreement, I think, players can be proud of.”

And for a sport with its own troubled history, including losing the entire 2004-05 season to an extended work stoppage, the two sides worked toward this deal amid the pandemic with a perhaps unprecedented level of cooperation.

“I wouldn’t even say it approached a negotiation,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “It was a recognition by both sides that we were being confronted with an incredibly difficult and novel, unprecedented situation, and then to get through it for the good of our constituents and the good of the game and good of our fans, we needed to work together to solve the myriad problems that would be in front of us.”

Under the deal, teams will begin training camps on July 13, with travel to Toronto and Edmonton on July 26 for a two-month tournament that will begin August 1 and conclude no later than October 4. 

Long-term, the league’s salary cap will be set $81.5m per team and will essentially remain there until annual hockey-related revenue in the league surpasses $4.8bn, the figure projected for the 2019-20 season before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. The league’s minimum salary will rise from $700,000 to $750,000 and ultimately reach $775,000 during the course of the deal. Revisions are also being made to escrow payments that players would owe owners to even out hockey-related revenue at a straight 50-50 split. 

Reaching certain parameters within that escrow system will automatically extend the overall labor deal for an additional year and through the 2026-27 season.

And notably, the deal would also pave the way for NHL players to participate in the Winter Olympics in 2022 and 2026, provided issues on matters such as marketing and insurance can also be resolved with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation. NHL players participated in five straight Winter Olympics between 1998 and 2014 before skipping the 2018 Games in South Korea.

“I think Don and I both recognize that labor peace something that we couldn’t even quantify how important it was, but we both knew that for the business of the game to come back strong, for the game itself to come back strong, there was enough disruption going on in the world that we didn’t have to add to it, which I think made this a collaborative problem-solving effort more than anything else,” Bettman said.

In confirming the expected naming of Edmonton and Toronto as the two hub cities for the return to play, the league did confirm that sharply spiking virus cases in the US – particularly in the previous supposed hub city frontrunner Las Vegas, Nevada – helped prompt the shift toward the Canadian markets.

But even with that geographic pivot, daily testing of all related personnel, and a strict set of health and safety protocols, league and union executives acknowledged the marked uncertainty inherent with restarting play now. To that end, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said an “outbreak situation” could cause play to shut down again, as it was in March, but said there are no “hard-and-fast numbers” that would dictate such a decision.

“We look to our medical professional more than anything else as to whether we’re in a high-risk situation,” Daly said. “We have been looking toward our medical professionals from the start and experts from the start in terms of where we’re in danger and where we’re not. I think we have a good handle on protocol.”

Somewhat similar to some other pro leagues, individual NHL player cases of Covid-19 will not be released by the league in order to conform with medical privacy rules. Testing results will be released regularly on an aggregate basis. Players will maintain their own rights to make their own disclosures as they wish.

“The media and public will know what kind of situation we’re in, but we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re doing it on a club-by-club or player-by-player basis,” Daly said. “The interests of medical privacy are important and we’re going to protect them.”

After the conclusion of the amended 2019-20 season, a full season with the normal 82 games for each is expected for the 2020-21 campaign.

“Looking at the schedule, maybe with some adjustments, we believe we can play a full season, even if it runs a little later than usual,” Bettman said.