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Explaining the ongoing talks between the NHL and NHLPA

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A handy guide to a season in the balance.

2020 NHL Draft - Round One
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft at NHL Network Studio
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The NHL and NHLPA are continuing talks regarding the 2020-21 season.

At first, those talks looked destined to result in the fourth season affected by labor negotiations during Gary Bettman’s tenure as NHL commissioner (1994-95, 2004-05, 2012-13).

Fortunately, with reports from Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman on Friday, that no longer appears to be the case:

With the new targeted start date of January 15th and the expectation that training camps will begin sometime in the new year, it means both sides are making progress. But how did we get here in the first place?

Here’s how:

How did this begin?

The NHL will be facing multiple economic factors at the start of the season. Having no fans in stadiums could cost each team an estimated $150 million. Teams in smaller markets would be more affected by that number, too.

Therefore, the NHL asked the NHL Players’ Association to take delayed payments for this season, which means players would earn less this seasons but make the money back in the future. Having just negotiated a new CBA in the summer — which included concessions from the players in light of the pandemic — the NHLPA did not react kindly to that request from the NHL, feeling those new requests went against the prior CBA.

What’s Force Majeure?

The teams have the power to cancel the season unilaterally by citing “force majeure” defined below:

A common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic or an event described by the legal term act of God, prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

A worldwide pandemic certainly qualifies as an “extraordinary event.” Although the promise of a vaccine is on the horizon, it could still take several months before large social gatherings are deemed safe again, which means that fans likely still won’t be allowed into NHL stadiums through the early stages of whatever the 2021 NHL season becomes.

Because of the costs referenced above, owners could decide to vote against having a season in a cost-saving measure. However, according to ESPN’s Greg Wyshinski (as mentioned on the Puck Soup podcast), not enough owners have asked for the season to be cancelled, including the powerful ones like Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins.

Also, if individual teams want to pull out of the season, they would have to get approval from the Board of Governors to do so. That approval is unlikely to come. We will most likely see all 31 teams in the new year.

Why the shortened season?

Right now, the two sides are looking at a season between 52 and 56 games with each side favoring 56, according to this report from LeBrun. It would be a condensed schedule with the Stanley Cup awarded sometime in July.

One factor being considered is the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which were pushed back to 2021 and are an event that the NHL would prefer to not compete against for TV ratings, according to LeBrun. NBC hosts both the Olympics and the NHL Playoffs and the NHL is not inclined to find out which event is preferred by NBC and its viewers (the Rio Olympics brought in 3.6 billion viewers. The 2020 NHL Playoffs averaged 953,000 viewers per game).

Those factors are being considered, especially with a new TV contract coming up in the United States at the end of this year and Stanley Cup Final games being the biggest draws.

Another important factor, from an NHL perspective, is that the ‘21-22 season would be the first season for the NHL’s newest expansion franchise: the Seattle Kraken. The NHL appears to be doing all it can to make that season as normal as possible for that reason.

What’s going on with outdoor games?

Four teams (Penguins, Bruins, Kings and Ducks) have reportedly investigated hosting multiple outdoor games so that they could have fans, although Bettman has already warned that this is an expensive proposition. It’s unlikely to happen as of now, but if teams got desperate that idea could be revisited.

Speaking of outdoor games: the 2021 Winter Classic will likely be postponed. The game was scheduled for Jan. 1, which was long considered the target start date for the NHL, with that game between the Wild and Jets serving as the season opener. However, it was delayed in late October however and that match up could become the 2022 Winter Classic instead, with Bettman having said they will return to both locations “in the near future”. The 2021 All-Star Weekend, which was scheduled for Jan. 29-30, 2021 in Sunrise, Fla., has already been postponed.

How does this impact the Blackhawks?

Rocky Wirtz has been one of the quietest owners throughout this process so far. He was not among the list of owners reportedly exploring outdoor games, and Chicago is far from a small market, which suggests that he probably was not among the owners asking for the season to be canceled.

Instead, he’s likely still focused on finding a team president. Wirtz said on 670 the Score in August that Danny Wirtz would not have the interim tag removed. That search remains ongoing.

If it means less games of watching this “rebuild” then, yes, this all may be a post-Thanksgiving reason to be grateful. More clarity on the start of the NHL season could also give the AHL a better idea of when it can get started.

The most recent update from the AHL — which came just before Halloween — targeted a start date of Feb. 5, 2021. With all of the young prospects on the roster, the IceHogs will be an important team to watch this hockey season.

If anything new arises, we’ll update accordingly. As of this writing, it appears that the two sides are making progress and it appears there will be some version of a 2021 hockey season.