The N.H.L.’s owners and players union announced on Friday that they had officially approved a new labor agreement that will last through 2026 and, more immediately, will allow them to proceed with plans to complete the 2019-20 season.
The deal was formally approved after separate votes by the owners and the league’s players. The season will resume Aug. 1 with an expanded 24-team playoff at two hubs, in Edmonton and Toronto, and will end in Edmonton in early October. The draft is tentatively set to take place Oct. 9 and 10, and a full 2020-21 campaign will begin in December.
The existing collective bargaining agreement was set to expire in 2022, but the new agreement overwrote the final two years of that deal and extended it at least four more seasons. The new deal addresses safety measures to ward off the coronavirus during the upcoming playoffs, opens the door for a return to participation in the next two Winter Olympics and addresses how the economic effects of the pandemic will be dispersed between players and owners.
The final approval ended an unusually condensed negotiation process that began in earnest after the N.H.L. halted competition on March 12. The previous three labor negotiations had not gone so swimmingly: In 1994-95 the league lost nearly half a season to a labor dispute, as it did in 2012-13, and in 2004-5 it lost an entire season.
“I don’t think a normal C.B.A. situation goes this quickly, but both parties wanted it done and it got done,” Carolina Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams, a 20-year veteran who sat out the first half of the season before returning in January, said during a conference call.
The N.H.L. is set to enter the third of four phases in its return-to-play plan, with the 24 teams who qualified for the expanded playoffs beginning training in their home markets next week. Players have until Monday to decide if they want to opt out of the season, as several players have already done in M.L.B., M.L.S., the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A.
Hours after the agreement was announced, Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic announced he would opt out, becoming the first N.H.L. player to do so publicly. Hamonic cited the health of his daughter, who was hospitalized last year with a respiratory illness.
Thirty-five N.H.L. players tested positive from June 8 to July 6, with only about half of the returning players undergoing regular testing thus far. The league has said “isolated cases” would not interfere with play, but the agreement stipulates broadly that an outbreak could interrupt or cancel the rest of the season.
Williams said he felt players were willing to make sacrifices such as living inside the contained environments in Edmonton and Toronto, isolated from social life and their families until the conference finals, when family visits will be permitted.
The N.H.L. considered shortening the conference quarterfinals and semifinals so families could arrive sooner, but Mathieu Schneider, a special assistant with the union, said players largely rejected that idea.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that testing would be constant. Daly said there were no “hard and fast numbers” that would lead the league to alter or shut down play, but that it would rely on the advice of medical professionals and experts.
Williams expressed concern earlier in the week about the possibility of a disruption in play and the virus’s potential impact on competition.
“What if there’s an outbreak on the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 and seven of us or 10 of us can’t play?” Williams said. “What happens to the team? Is it a forfeit? Do we wait a couple weeks?”
Eastern Conference clubs will travel to Toronto, and Western Conference teams will head to Edmonton on July 26. (The Canadian government waived the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for players and staff crossing the border from the United States.) Edmonton, which had 203 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Friday, will host both conference finals series, as well as the Stanley Cup finals.
The games will be played without fans, but the broadcasts of the games may include simulated noise and other adaptations.
“We have some very special things planned. You’ll just have to wait to see them,” Bettman said.
With the N.H.L. facing an enormous budget shortfall because of the pandemic, the agreement keeps the salary cap at its current level, $81.5 million, through next season. Ten percent of player salaries will be deferred, and 20 percent will be placed in escrow — an increase of more than 50 percent from this season’s escrow payments.
Deferred salaries will be repaid over the course of the agreement. The salary cap and escrow figures are set to become less restrictive in ensuing seasons.
“What we tried to do was structure something that everybody could live with over time, but it’s important to understand that it’s over time. If revenue is less, revenue is less,” N.H.L.P.A. Executive Director Donald Fehr said, adding that the idea was to “get back to normal as soon as possible.”
The agreement also helps clear the way for N.H.L. players to return to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026. They had participated in five straight Olympics from 1998 to 2014, but the N.H.L. did not allow participation in the 2018 games, much to the chagrin of the players. The remaining hurdle is an agreement between the league and the International Olympic Committee.
Williams acknowledged plenty of uncertainty in the league’s near future, but was still able to look forward to a return to the ice.
“Nobody knows how the game is going to come back next year when it does come back,” he said. “Is it going to be half fans, is it going to be no fans, is it going to be full houses? So you don’t know what the numbers are going to be like next year. All we know is that we’re going to be playing hockey and there will be labor peace.”