A January 1st Start Is Looking Bleak As Talks Between The NHL And The NHLPA Continue To Stall

By Ed Francis on December 2, 2020 at 11:21 am
Is the short-term future of Nationwide Arena an empty one?

It's time to face reality.

Unless good news comes fast (and remember, it's 2020, so that's a big ask), the odds of a new NHL season starting on January 1st are likely 50% at best - and shrinking by the hour. 

It's certainly not helping matters that the Coronavirus is surging as we enter a bustling holiday season. The NHL is keeping a close eye on other leagues around the world, and word this morning from the Finnish Liiga that they are postponing all games through at least December 19th is not ideal. 

Beyond that, however, talks continue to hit snags between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association. As it usually is, money is at the heart of the issue. The owners want the players to give a little, but the players feel they've given more than enough. 

Now that we're in December and no agreement has been reached and nothing appearing imminent, it would seem mathematically improbable for hockey to start within a month. 

Let's do that math(y?): Even if a deal were reached today, it would take at least a week for players to gather for a quarantine. Then you've got a week of quarantine, and don't forget that the seven non-bubble teams were promised an extended training camp. Give them even just one week, and you're looking at around Christmas before a team that was in the bubble - like, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets - could gather for camp. 

That's a week from January 1st, and that's not going to be enough time. And remember, that's if an agreement were reached now. There's very little sign of an agreement this week, let alone now. 

What seems most likely, assuming a deal gets done, is a start towards the end of January. Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic tweeted that one source on the players' Return to Play committee has said an end-of-month start is most ideal at this point.

Remember, the league can't infinitely extend the season as they did during the 2019-20 campaign. They desperately want to play a regular 82-game season starting in October for 2021-22, and with the Summer Olympics starting in July, there is motivation for a Stanley Cup champion to be crowned by early July. In other words, the longer this drags out, the shorter the season will be. Hopes for a 60-70 game season were the hopes of a January 1st start. A late January puck drop? We're looking at 50-60 games. 

It gets worse. Allan Walsh, an NHL agent who represents players such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Max Pacioretty, and Jonathan Huberdeau, says that the league is considering using a Force Majeure (Latin for "superior force") clause to scrap the season altogether. 

Take it with a grain of salt, given that he's representing several current players with a lot on the line, but it's not the first time that the idea of no season has come up. Just last week, word came out that multiple team owners have said they can't afford a season without fans. Commissioner Gary Bettman has told them that's "not an option" but until players are on the ice, it can't be ruled out. So not only are there ongoing battles between the NHL and the NHLPA, but even the league and some of the owners are in disagreement about how things should play out.

Ultimately, no season would decimate the league, so there will almost assuredly be some type of season. How that season will look, however, remains to be seen - and every day matters.