With Olympic participation and Canadian hub cities on the radar, NHL’s next phase might be its wisest

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In a year destined to be remembered for grim news, for a moment on Tuesday, the National Hockey League offered a sliver of promise that, even in our chaotic world, sanity might still occasionally prevail — at least when it comes to some key decisions by the world’s best hockey league.

As the league and its players union continued talks on the next phases of its return-to-play protocol — which will essentially require an extension to the existing collective bargaining agreement that doesn’t figure to be simple stuff — a couple of storylines emerged, at least for a moment in an ever-fluid and interconnected negotiation.

For one: Multiple reports indicated the players’ association appeared to be making progress on the CBA including Olympic participation beginning with the 2022 Beijing Games — which, if it comes to fruition, would give the world its first best-on-best men’s hockey tournament since the 2014 Sochi Olympics. At a moment when sports fans have spent months deprived of their favourite fodder, this was the ultimate in a delayed-gratification newsflash. Still, going to the Olympics has always been a good-of-the-game no-brainer.

The idea that the NHL would return there after missing the 2018 Pyeongchang Games would be, to put it simply, a win for what’s right. The prospect of players of the stature of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews playing through their primes without representing their countries in a significant best-on-best showdown — at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, of course, McDavid and Matthews starred for Team North America — would have been beyond ridiculous. Fans can only hope Olympic participation, as negotiations wear on, remains on the table.

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For another: An alarming spike in coronavirus cases in Clark County, Nev., which contains Las Vegas, has the latest glance at the return-to-play weather vane pointing to the wisdom of two Canadian hub cities. Those would be Toronto and Edmonton. For reasons that have been enumerated in this space and others, those cities are the only remaining options that prioritize both player health and, thanks to Canada’s 74-cent dollar, overall profit. And how often, in these times, have we seen the logical conclusion win popular favour?

Not that anything can be considered a done deal until a majority of players vote to approve an agreement. And not that there aren’t players looking for answers to more than a few essential questions as the planned July 10 start to mandatory training camp drew closer.

“I don’t think I have just one (question),” Frederik Andersen, the Maple Leafs goaltender, was saying on Tuesday afternoon, speaking to reporters on a team-arranged Zoom call. “But the whole thing in general has got to make sense, just future CBA stuff. Obviously, safety is very important and probably the most important. But just the whole context of that (financial) stuff and what we can agree on with the league. I’m confident that we’ll have something to vote on.”

There are NHL players who aren’t thrilled with the idea of resuming the 2019-20 season in a pair of hub cities in the weeks ahead. And you can understand why.

As New York Rangers all-star Artemi Panarin vented on social media a few days back, offering a rare behind-the-curtain look at the discontent of come players: “I have concerns not only about the health of players but also about the long-term prosperity of the NHL. For nearly two decades, the players have protected the owners’ income with escrow, including throughout this pandemic process, even as owners’ equity continues to grow. It is time to fix the escrow. We as players cannot report to camp without already having an agreement in place.”

But here’s the reason it’s expected that NHLers will ultimately cast a majority vote in favour of a return to play, whenever the league and its players’ union reach a suitable point in ongoing negotiations: the players owe the owners money — hundreds of millions’ worth. In a season in which they’ve been paid something in the range of 90 per cent of their salaries, the league is staring down a revenue shortfall of something in the range of $1.1 billion (U.S.) on account of the coronavirus shutting down the bulk of revenue-generating operations on March 12.

So buying into the proposed 24-team return-to-play model, while it won’t get the players back to square with the owners, offers the possibility of knocking a chunk off the collective debt — something in the range of $225 million, depending on whose math you’re considering gospel.

Still, to Panarin’s point, even if late-summer hockey recoups those would-be losses, the players are staring down years of flat salary caps and punitive escrow payments to make up the balance of their debt to owners — a balance that could potentially grow if the 2020-21 season begins without fans in the stands, or with less-than-full-capacity arenas in service to social distancing. If players were previously fed up with pre-coronavirus escrow payments — which are essentially a mechanism to ensure players and owners arrive at their rightful 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues — they’re going to be apoplectic in the face of the pandemic-era math. Talks have slotted the prospective estimate of next season’s escrow payment running at a whopping 20 per cent. To put that in perspective, players paid a net 10 per cent escrow in 2018-19.

“I don’t think we have enough information yet,” Andersen said Tuesday. “I think the PA and the league are still ironing that out, and then we’ll see. I think it seems like it’s the 11th hour here. So hopefully things will progress a little bit in the next week, because the July 10 goal (of opening training camps) is coming up soon.”

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Amid those grim financial forecasts, in other words, it was nice to see a smidgen of heartening news mixed in. Not that anything can be considered final in the midst of a global crisis that changes moment to moment. But for all the questions that still need answers, Andersen was definitive on at least one topic: He said he’s looking forward to Toronto’s best-of-five play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, start date and location still to be announced.

“I want to play,” Andersen said. “I don’t just want to sit and waste the summer and season. Hopefully we’ll see soon.”

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