Why the NHL still hasn’t returned — and what might happen when it does

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The NHL has a lot to figure out

In a normal year, the NHL and NBA seasons would be in full swing right now. The absence of both is throwing off our natural rhythms as sports fans.

Help is on the way, though. NBA training camps opened this week, and the league announced its Dec. 22 season openers (a Warriors-Nets, Clippers-Lakers doubleheader) along with the customary five-game slate on Christmas Day. More dates went on the calendar today as the league revealed its schedule for the first half of the season. The Raptors open Dec. 23 vs. New Orleans at their temporary home in Tampa.

All good things. But they’re putting pressure on the NHL, which is not going to make the Jan. 1 start date it was shooting for. Everyone understands that planning a sports season during a pandemic is an unprecedented challenge. But when the league you normally run parallel with is ramping up for its season and you still haven’t figured out when (or even for sure if) yours will start, well, it’s starting to make people nervous.

So, what’s the holdup? When will we see NHL hockey? What might the season look like? Here’s the latest:

The main holdup is money.

Shocking, I know, from a league that’s lost a full season and two halves of a season to lockouts during Gary Bettman’s reign as commissioner. And frustrating for fans who are tired of seeing billionaires and millionaires fight over mountains of money. But let’s just try and understand where both sides are coming from.

Quick background: As part of their deal to return to the ice last summer, the NHL asked the players to give back some of the money they’re due in their contracts to help defray the revenue losses suffered by playing a shortened season(s) without fans in arenas. The reasoning behind this is that, basically, the players and team owners have agreed to split the money the NHL makes 50/50. So, if that balance is to be maintained, it’s no longer possible for the owners to pay the players what they promised them at a time when the league’s financial outlook was much better.

Understanding this, the players agreed to defer 10 per cent of their salaries for the upcoming season and allow 20 per cent to be held in escrow until the revenue is counted at the end of the season and the 50/50 line can be drawn. Given how grave things look at the moment, you have to assume owners will end up keeping that escrow money. So that’s a pretty big hit for the players if you compare it to 2018-19, when about 13 per cent of their pay went into escrow and they wound up getting more than 3 per cent back at the end of the year.

That’s why players were not happy a few weeks ago when the league came back and asked, reportedly, for the 10 per cent salary deferral to be bumped up to 26 per cent, along with the 20 per cent escrow. This is the owners’ way of accounting for the fact that the NHL’s financial outlook is now worse than it was in the summer, when it still seemed possible that a full season (or close to it) could be played — maybe even with fans in some buildings.

The players accused the league of reneging on the deal struck over the summer, and in a sense they have a point. But it depends on what you think “the deal” is.

The league/owners argue that the deal is the 50/50 revenue split and it will be preserved one way or another. Bettman framed it this week as a pay me now or pay me later situation: either players bite the bullet this season with the big salary deferral, or give the money back gradually in the coming years as the owners keep a bigger slice of the escrow and/or the salary cap falls.

There are some hard feelings right now, but the general mood still seems to be that a deal will be struck in time to have a season.

If/when a deal is reached, the season will be a strange one.

Multiple reports today said the NHL is now aiming for a 52- or 56-game season starting in mid-January. Training camps would open early in the new year, and the Stanley Cup awarded by early July.

Like the NBA’s, the season would likely be played in teams’ home arenas — so no bubble like we saw in the playoffs. Given the current cross-border travel restrictions, the NHL is reportedly considering a temporary realignment that puts the seven Canadian-based teams in their own division. But the money stuff probably needs to get settled before any of this can be worked out between the league and the players’ association.

Meanwhile, the worsening spread of the coronavirus (and tougher government restrictions aimed at combating it) are making players, owners and fans increasingly nervous that it will be very difficult to pull off a season. That angst was reflected in today’s report by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that four teams — Anaheim, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh — are looking into the possibility of playing their home games outdoors. Sounds desperate. But, hey, desperate times.

The primary holdup in setting a new NHL season start date is money. Go figure. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/file)

Quickly…

Not everyone is sold on the Calgary curling bubble. It does seem a bit odd, the decision by Curling Canada this week to try and hold the 2021 Scotties, Brier and men’s world championship in a place where the provincial government is planning field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients and all indoor gatherings are banned. So why Calgary? In short, because city council and the Alberta government support hosting those events. But, behind the scenes, many curlers are wondering whether it’s worth it. Read more about the concerns in this story by CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux.

Kadeisha Buchanan was named the Canadian women’s soccer player of the year. Like Alphonso Davies, who won the men’s share of Canada Soccer’s Canadian Players of the Year Award yesterday, Buchanan helped her club team capture a Champions League title. The 25-year-old defender played every minute of Lyon’s victory in the final and has now won the Women’s Champions League every year since joining the French club in 2017. Read more about Buchanan’s big year here.

Buchanan isn’t the only Canadian athlete who’s found a home in France. Several members of Canada’s women’s basketball team have joined club teams there and returned home raving about the experience: talented players, good coaches, guaranteed contracts and, of course, French culture. Today, five Canadians play in France’s top women’s league and another nine are spread across the other two. Read more about what the country is doing for them, and what they’re doing for the country, here.

Parkour is going through a civil war of sorts. Next week, the International Olympic Committee is expected to finalize the list of sports for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. Parkour — an edgy type of running competition where athletes trick off different obstacles in an urban setting — seems perfect. It was developed in Paris in the 1990s and has the kind of young-person appeal the Olympics are desperate for. But an organizing group called Parkour Earth is asking the IOC not to add their sport because it believes the governing body of gymnastics is attempting a “hostile takeover” of it. FIG, as it’s known, is planning to stage the first parkour world championships in March in Japan, and Parkour Earth accuses the governing body of “encroachment and misappropriation of our sport.” Read more about the battle over parkour’s future here and see what the sport looks like here.

This weekend on CBC Sports

Here’s what you can live stream and/or watch on TV:

Alpine skiing: This should have been the week Lake Louise hosted the opening women’s downhill and super-G races of the World Cup season. But, due to the pandemic, all of alpine’s North American stops were moved to Europe and the schedule condensed. On Saturday, there’s a men’s giant slalom in Italy starting at 4:30 a.m. ET, and a women’s super-G at St. Moritz at 5:30 a.m. ET. Another women’s super-G goes Sunday at the same time. Watch the women’s races here and the men’s here. And if you’re pining for Lake Louise, this week’s edition of Olympic Games Replay revisits some of the great racing moments at the Alberta venue. Watch it Saturday at noon ET here or on the CBC TV network.

Freestyle skiing: Canadian star Mikael Kingsbury fractured two vertebrae in training and is likely out until late January. So he’ll miss the moguls World Cup season opener in Finland, which you can stream live Saturday at 9 a.m. ET here.

Luge: The World Cup season continues in Germany on Saturday with a doubles race at 3:25 a.m. ET and a women’s at 6:15 a.m. ET. On Sunday there’s a men’s race at 3:30 a.m. ET and a team relay at 7:15 a.m. ET. Stream them all live here.

Road to the Olympic Games: The show launches its winter season with the men’s giant slalom in Italy, the women’s super-G at St. Moritz and the moguls season opener in Finland. Watch Saturday from 3-6 p.m. ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app or the CBC TV network.

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