Hockey became the latest sport to finalize a return during a global pandemic after NHL owners and players approved an agreement Friday to resume the season.
Games begin Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, with coronavirus cases in the U.S. pushing the league into Canada for the summer and fall until the Stanley Cup is awarded in late September or early October.
Training camps open across North America on Monday, which is also the deadline for players to opt out of participating with no penalty.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of players saying I don’t want to go,” Minnesota forward Zach Parise said. “If one of my teammates says they don’t want to go, you respect their decision for whatever reason. We all want to keep our families safe.”
The return-to-play plan, tentatively approved by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association on Monday, was ratified by the league’s board of governors and with majority approval from players following a three-day voting period, ending Friday. Along with it, the two sides also formally approved a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement.
“This agreement is a meaningful step forward for the players and owners, and for our game, in a difficult and uncertain time,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said. “We are pleased to be able to bring NHL hockey back to the fans.”
The NHL is back with an expanded 24-team playoff format, but things will be much different from the norm: There will be no fans. There will be five or six games a day at the start — up to three at each site, which will be heavily cordoned off from the public.
And for the first time in league history, there will be an unusual final four in Edmonton to settle a championship later than ever before with ramifications pushing back the start of next season to December or even as late as January.
Still, hockey is preparing to go on in a year that has upended life for millions, and sports along with it. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.
“While we have all worked very hard to try to address the risks of COVID-19, we know that health and safety are and will continue to be our priorities,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We know that all of our fans are excited about our return to the ice next month, and that has been our goal since we paused our season on March 12.”
Even so, the NHL is being cautious in its return with Toronto and Edmonton to serve as hub cities through the qualifying and first two rounds of the playoffs. The 12 Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto and the 12 West teams in Edmonton, with home-rink advantages for the Maple Leafs and Oilers conceded in a nod to television preferences.
The top four teams in each conference — Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West — automatically advance to the field of 16 and will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding.
The best-of-five qualifying round series in the East are No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 New York Rangers, No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus and in the West No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Arizona, No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Minnesota and No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg.
Action will begin with five games on Aug. 1, starting with Hurricanes-Rangers, Islanders-Panthers and Penguins-Canadiens in Toronto, and Oilers-Blackhawks and Flames-Jets in Edmonton.
The preliminary round will feature 52 games played through the first nine days before teams will get a break on Aug. 10, when the NHL will hold the second phase of its draft lottery. Each of the eight eliminated teams will have an equal chance of winning the No. 1 pick, after the first phase of the draft lottery left the choice undetermined.
The first round of the playoffs will then begin at each of the two hub cities on Aug. 11. Teams will be re-seeded every round, and the remainder of the playoffs will all be best-of-seven series.
Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8. The league has reported 35 players testing positive since that point, though the hope is that number will hit zero once teams are scheduled to travel to their respective hubs on July 26.
With personnel limits, quarantining restrictions and daily tests for players, coaches, management and team, arena, hotel and restaurant staff, the NHL will try to complete a season that was shut down March 12 with 189 games and the playoffs remaining.
Teams will be quarantined from families and the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds.
Getting back on the ice also comes with labor peace through at least 2026.
The CBA extension includes an agreement to send players to Olympics in 2022 and 2026 — pending an agreement with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation — and includes some salary deferrals that allow both sides to bear the brunt of losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and share in the benefits of an upcoming U.S. TV rights contract.
“All we know is we will be playing hockey, there will be labor peace so long as this thing gets ratified for another four years, six years maybe,” Carolina veteran Justin Williams said. “That’s good for the fan, that’s good for the TV audience, that’s good for the players, it’s good for everybody. So we’re obviously excited about that. It’s awesome that they were able to do this. I don’t think a normal CBA negotiation goes this quickly. But both parties wanted it done and they got it done.”