The NHL is planning for what could be an unusual 2020-21 season with the goal of returning to normal in 2021-22.
An official start date for the season has not yet been announced.
“That is a work in progress, influenced largely by what we’re hearing from the medical experts, and we talk to some pretty highly placed people without name-dropping,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday.
“COVID[-19] is going through a second wave, which could be worse than the first wave, and between Thanksgiving and the aftermath and what they think is going to happen for Christmas and the aftermath, we are taking our time and making sure that as we look for ways to move forward we’re focused on health and safety and doing the right things.”
Commissioner Bettman made the comments in an online interview during Sports Business Journal’s Dealmakers in Sports conference.
The Commissioner said the NHL Players’ Association would sign off on a training camp of appropriate length, which might be slightly shorter than past seasons. Teams probably would want to play a preseason game or two, he said.
Based on what the NHL is being told by medical experts, particularly regarding the availability of vaccines to the general public, Commissioner Bettman said arenas could be full in 2021-22, when the Seattle Kraken begin play as an expansion team.
“I think this is perhaps the most important thing,” the Commissioner said. “What we’re focused on is trying to get through the ’20-21 season so that we can be back in position for ’21-22 to normalcy. … We are hopeful and optimistic based on everything we’re hearing that we can look at normalcy by the time we get to ’21-22 whatever happens this season.”
Commissioner Bettman said the NHL has not asked the NHLPA to renegotiate the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement after the League and union announced a four-year extension July 10 that takes the agreement through 2025-26.
The Commissioner said the NHL and NHLPA are discussing short-term issues and the long-term economic impact.
Short-term issues include what the season will look like; whether teams will play in home arenas, hubs or a hybrid; and potential for temporary divisional realignment.
The Canada-United States border is closed to nonessential travel, and Canada has said it will remain so until the pandemic is under control. Commissioner Bettman said even if NHL teams could cross, the issue of quarantine remains.
“If you’re playing a regular schedule of games, you can’t quarantine players for 14 days as you’re moving in and out of the country, which is why, among the other issues that are going to impact a possible season, is we literally would have to realign and create a situation where maybe the teams in Canada only play each other, and we have to realign the way all of our teams are playing competitively,” the Commissioner said.
“It’s part of the myriad of issues that we’re dealing with, which is why when people say, ‘Oh, well, they’re trying to renegotiate,’ the answer to all of this is, we’ve got a lot of issues and a lot of problems to deal with, and the system is going to be stressed for everyone. And is there an appetite for working through all of those issues?”
The owners and the players split hockey-related revenue 50-50 under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. A portion of players’ salaries is held in escrow during the accounting process. The extension capped escrow, starting at 20 percent for 2020-21 and descending to 6 percent by 2023-24.
The NHL salary cap is tied to hockey-related revenue under the teams of the collective bargaining agreement as well. It will remain at $81.5 million until hockey-related revenue surpasses $3.3 billion, according to the extension.
It is unclear how many fans, if any, could attend games in 2020-21. Governmental limits on gatherings for public events vary from market to market.
“Whatever the revenues are, the players only get 50 percent,” Commissioner Bettman said. “And if we overpay them and they don’t pay us back in the short term, they have to pay us back over time. There will be stresses on the system, and we’ve had discussions about what those stresses are and how they might be dealt with, but we’re not trying to say you must do X, Y and Z. We’re trying to look for ways to continue to work together.
“I know it’s being portrayed as something else, and it’s unfortunate and it’s inaccurate, because at the end of the day, if the system gets stressed, it’s going to be stressed for both of us.
“If we have to pay out lots of cash, two-thirds of which is going to come back to us, that may cause some stress, but we’ll have to deal with it if we’re going to move forward. And by the same token, if the players owe us more money than anybody imagined, the salary cap could be flat or close to flat for the next five or six years, and players into the future will be repaying what we’re owed.
“So the [situation] isn’t like, well, we demand a renegotiation. To the contrary, it’s we see the way the system is going to be impacted. Is it something that makes sense to deal with in the context of everything else that we may have to do, which is out of the ordinary and unanticipated, in order to be in a position to possibly play?”