By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
For the last month, the NHL has been in Phase 2 as players slowly started to trickle into team practice facilities for voluntary workouts, but it was always a question of whether the next phases of the return-to-play plan would actually get off the ground.
We now have that answer. The NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA voted in approval to ratify a Memorandum of Understanding to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Return to Play protocols. The Players Association vote was 502-135, a 78.8 percent approval. A simple majority vote was needed from the full membership of the NHLPA to ratify.
“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 press release. “I thank NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr and Special Assistant to the Executive Director Mathieu Schneider, the more than 700 NHL Players — particularly those who worked on our Return to Play Committee — and the NHL’s Board of Governors for coming together under extraordinary circumstances for the good of our game. While we have all worked very hard to try to address the risks of COVID-19, we know that health and safety are and will continue to be our priorities. We know that all of our fans are excited about our return to the ice next month and that has been our goal since we paused our season on March 12.”
“This agreement is a meaningful step forward for the players and owners, and for our game, in a difficult and uncertain time. This would not have happened but for the enormous contributions that the players made throughout, particularly those who served on the Negotiating and Return to Play Committees, as well as those on the Executive Board,” Don Fehr, NHLPA Executive Director, said in a press release. “I also thank Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and the NHL staff for their efforts towards finding solutions to the problems we face. Most importantly, we are pleased to be able to bring NHL hockey back to the fans. We look forward to the NHL’s continued growth here in North America and on the world stage.”
With this vote, it means that there is labor peace in the NHL for the next six seasons and that Phase 3 of the NHL’s return to play, the start of formal training camps, can begin as scheduled on Monday.
In accordance with return-to-play protocols, players now have three days to opt out for the remainder of the 2019-20 season without penalty. The deadline for this will be Monday at 5 p.m.
From the start of Phase 3, players will remain at training camp facilities until traveling to the hub cities ahead of the start of Phase 4 on July 26. The beginning of both the qualifying round and Round Robin will be Aug. 1. All 24 teams participating in the playoffs are expected to play one exhibition game during the week leading up to the start of Phase 4 that will take place between July 28-30.
In Phase 4, the 12 Eastern Conference teams will report to Toronto and the 12 Western Conference teams will report to Edmonton for the qualifying round and first two rounds of the playoffs. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be held in Edmonton.
Each team can bring a maximum of 52 personnel to the hub city, including a maximum of 31 players. All members of each team traveling to the hub cities will live in a secure bubble throughout Phase 4 and be tested daily for COVID-19 in addition to daily temperature checks and symptom screenings. Any positive tests will be immediately isolated.
The game schedule for Phase 4, at least through the qualifying round and Round Robin has also been released. Games are scheduled on a staggered basis. The start times of games for the first 10 days of qualifiers and Round Robin play will be at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Toronto and 2 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. in Edmonton. Start times may fluctuate up to 30 minutes during the qualifying round to accommodate for playoff overtime rules in qualifying round games.
For the Flyers, their three Round Robin games will take place on Aug. 2 against Boston, Aug. 6 against Washington and Aug. 9 against Tampa Bay. The start time for these games is to be determined and a broadcast schedule for all games during this 10-day period will be released in the coming days. All statistics from these games are considered part of the 2020 postseason.
Following the qualifying and Round Robin, Aug. 10 will be an off day for the league and is the tentative date of Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery. On Aug. 11, the first round of the playoffs will begin.
Tentatively, the second round of the playoffs will begin on Aug. 25, the conference finals will begin on Sept. 8, and the Stanley Cup Final would run from Sept. 22 to Oct. 4. The 2020 NHL Draft is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10.
So with that, the NHL is back and looks to move ahead with finishing the season and awarding the Stanley Cup. Nothing is a certainty on that end, but there is confidence that once the league gets to the Phase 4 bubble, they will be able to see this plan to completion.
In the meantime, this is a huge victory for hockey to establish labor peace and work together to construct a CBA that works for both the league and players. For a league that has experienced three lockouts in the last 30 years and has one still fresh in the rear-view mirror from the 2012-13 season, the communication and collaboration is a welcome sight.
So it’s back to work for everyone around the league, including the Flyers, many of whom are already gathering in Voorhees in preparation of Phase 3 and eventually Phase 4.