Time is running out for the NHL to reach its goal of launching the 2020-21 season on January 1, and the list of obstacles is getting longer. Without an agreement between the league and the NHL Players’ Association by next week, the opener could be postponed for another month, bringing the schedule below the hoped-for 60 to 62 games. According to people familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak in public, Commissioner Gary Bettman asked players to defer an extra 13% of their pay next season after the 10% postponement they accepted in July. Players will eventually get that money back, but without interest. Bettman also suggested raising the escrow cap from 6% to 9% in each of the last three years of the employment contract. Players had previously agreed to limit the escrow limit from 20% for 2020-21, from 14% to 18% in 2021-22, and from 10% in 2022-23. Players held a conference call on Wednesday and were, unsurprisingly, unhappy with Bettman’s efforts to change the terms of the four-month-old employment contract to accommodate the pandemic-deflated club cash flow. But players want to play and owners want the league to be there again, so there is room for a compromise, such as having Bettman sweeten the players’ pot if the earnings return to something close to the pre-pandemic level. get started quickly with New Year’s Day, which is already a month later than Bettman had hoped. The seven teams that missed the extended playoffs last season and have been off the ice since early March, a group including the Kings and Ducks are allowed to start training camp a week earlier and have a three-week camp. To open on January 1, they should start around December 11, followed by the other 24 teams a week later. There is little time to waste, as players who have gone abroad will have to meet quarantine requirements in their team’s home city before they can hit the ice. “The focus is still very much on January 1 and the league and players are committed to making that happen,” said Kelly Cheeseman, Chief Operating Officer of AEG, the parent company of the Kings. “Having said that, we will be here in have to make some decisions over the next two weeks, and we’re excited to make those decisions. “Having games means making decisions. That’s okay. But the NHL’s start-up problems are more complex than the NBA’s, which the Lakers have almost two weeks after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, crowned champions, but returns for the NHL on Dec. 22. The US-Canada border is a big deal for the NHL. The NBA has one team in Canada, the Toronto Raptors, and she can move to the US for a season. “Obviously, we are not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel,” Bettman said at the recent Paley International Council Summit. expected to temporarily realign and create a full Canadian division with intradivision play. US-based teams play regionally focused schedules to minimize travel. Playing in tightly controlled bubbles like those created in Edmonton and Toronto during the playoffs is a non-starter because players don’t want to be away from loved ones for an entire season. A hub system is an option. “You play for 10 to 12 days. You play a lot of games without traveling. You go back, go home for a week and stay with your family,” said Bettman. “We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need. It won’t be as effective as a bubble, but we think if we go down this road, we can minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible.” the private arenas remain the preference of the owners. The NHL’s financial troubles are compounded by its reliance on ticket revenues, a result of a US TV deal that is not as lucrative as the one negotiated by the NFL, NBA, and MLB. According to statista.com, gate revenues made up 36.6% of all NHL revenues in 2018-19; that excludes the sale of concessions and merchandise for games. With a wide spread of a coronavirus vaccine, probably in a few months, the entire season could be played without fans, a blow to the clubs’ winnings. Another complication is that playing fewer than 70 games would require teams to return some of their local TV. duties fees. That’s an unpleasant prospect, but even playing a limited number of games and keeping some of the broadcast and sponsorship revenue would be better than getting no revenue at all. In late September, before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Bettman said he anticipated the 2020-21 season would feature a full 82-game schedule. That was never realistic. Like the rest of us, he had to become flexible. That should apply to both parties as they negotiate terms for the upcoming season.
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