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NHL, NHLPA ratify new CBA, return-to-play plan protocols

Last Updated Jul 10, 2020 at 8:18 pm EDT

Workers stand by after pausing arena assembly for the Maple Leafs NHL hockey game against the Nashville Predators at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on March 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The NHL and NHLPA have ratified an extension of their collective bargaining agreement and approved return-to-play protocols, paving the way for a 24-team Stanley Cup tournament.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman first reported the news.

Toronto and Edmonton will serve as hub cities during the resumption of play.

Training camps for the 24 teams primed to compete in the league’s blueprint to kickstart the 2019-20 campaign that was suspended March 12 are scheduled to begin Monday in each franchise’s home market.

The plan will then see Eastern Conference clubs report to Toronto on July 26, while those from the Western Conference will head to Edmonton before the games resume Aug. 1.

Each team will be permitted to bring a maximum of 52 people into the secure zones in the hub cities, including a maximum of 31 players.

Once in Canada’s largest city and Alberta’s capital, players are set to be kept away from the general public in so-called “bubbles” that include strict health measures, daily testing, and mostly confine teams to hotels and empty arenas.

The 24-team format – which includes every Canadian franchise, save for Ottawa – will see the top-4 clubs from both the East and West play mini-tournaments to determine playoff seeding, while the other 16 will battle in a never-before-seen qualifying round.

Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia will compete for the No. 1 slot in the East, while defending Cup champion St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas will do the same out West.

The East’s best-of-five qualifying series include 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. In the West, the matchups are 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.

The four winners of the best-of-five matchups in each conference will then be pitted against the top-4 seeds to fill out the usual 16-team playoff bracket. The league says Oct. 4 is the last possible date for the Stanley Cup final.

The NHL has awarded the Stanley Cup every year since 1893, except for 1919 because of the Spanish flu outbreak and in 2005 when the lockout scratched the entire season.

“Today, the NHL and the NHLPA announced a significant agreement that addresses the uncertainty everyone is dealing with, the framework for the completion of the 2019-20 season and the foundation for the continued long-term growth of our league,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

NHL executive director Don Fehr said the agreement was “a meaningful step forward for the players and owners, and for our game, in a difficult and uncertain time.”

The extension of the current CBA, which was scheduled to expire in September 2022 and now runs through at least the 2025-26 season, provides both players and owners clarity on a number of challenging financial realities caused by COVID-19.

The agreement marks the first time since Bettman was hired in 1993 that the NHL has bridged two CBAs without a work stoppage. Both the 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons were cut to 48 games because of lockouts, while the 2004-05 campaign was completely wiped out.

Mayor John Tory called it “great news” for the city of Toronto.

“There is no better place for the NHL season to continue,” Tory said in a statement. “We will make sure we put on a great show for the game of hockey as we always do, while following all proper health and safety protocols.”

“I know the league and MLSE have worked hard with Toronto Public Health to make sure precautions are in place to protect the health of the players and our residents.”

“I know we are a neutral site, and I will govern myself accordingly, so as I am not permitted to say ‘Go Leafs Go’ – I won’t.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, said the NHL choosing to hold all games in Canada reduces the risk, but it’s far from a fool-proof endeavour.

“We’d be blind to think that there isn’t COVID-19 in Canada, there’s just significantly less of it here compared to parts of the U.S.,” he said. “Everyone has to pay close attention to COVID-19 because even with the best laid plans, there still can be small weaknesses that might be exploited by this virus.”

Of the 396 NHLers tested at team facilities between June 8 and Monday during voluntary workouts, 23 results – in the neighbourhood of six per cent – came back positive. The league said it’s also aware of 12 other positive tests for players not taking part in those optional sessions.

That’s on top of 10 other positive tests announced in the spring.