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Is the NHL ready to miss another season?

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There is a strong sense around the league that we might not get another NHL season until the fall of 2021

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Commissioner Gary Bettman Press Conference Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

As the calendar flips to December, it has become abundantly obvious that the NHL’s plan to start the season in early January is nothing more than wishful thinking—despite what commissioner Gary Bettman says. As recently as last week, Bettman mentioned that the goal is for the 2021 season to begin on January 1st, but he is either lying to himself, the fans or both.

Over the past few weeks, the NHL and NHLPA have been working to find a way to get teams back on the ice early next year. Unfortunately, these talks have come with little to no progress as the two sides have very different visions of how things will work from a financial perspective.

When they agreed to the Return To Play (RTP) plan in the summer, it seemed as though most involved were assuming that the league would be able to begin a full 82-game season—with at least some ticket revenue—before the end of 2020. That obviously can’t happen, and with the pandemic actually getting worse, it’s looking more and more like ticket revenue will be nearly non-existent until at least the summer.

It’s something leagues like the NFL and NBA can handle—the NFL has been playing all season in mostly empty stadiums while the NBA is set to begin training camp this week—but unfortunately, the NHL doesn’t have the same luxury.

Unlike the big three North American professional leagues, the NHL is still a gate-driven business. This means that while the NFL, NBA and MLB have sponsorships and television deals that bring in enough revenue to break even without ticket sales, the NHL does not. The league’s TV contract with NBC doesn’t come close to covering operating expenses and most of the league’s 31 teams don’t have the type of corporate sponsorship to make up the difference.

The NHL needs to sell tickets, and the majority of its 31 franchises would be operating at a huge loss without ticket revenue. That’s why they need help from the NHLPA. Despite the players being forced into a record high escrow repayment, if the league were to operate under the RTP plan from this past summer, teams would still experience huge losses. Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star reported that some estimate owners would lose up to $150 million if forced to play without for a season, factoring in payrolls, travel costs, team employees and league dues.

Apparently, it was an issue back in the summer, but the league was so desperate to finish the season that Bettman rushed through a deal with the hopes that business forecasts would be in better shape than they are now.

This brought up the idea that the NHL might be better off simply not having a season, and according to ESPN, it’s something a number of owners are pushing for:

According to several sources, a few owners have suggested to Bettman that the league might be better off financially if it shuts down next season, since playing in empty arenas could be crippling to the bottom line.

This would be a worst-case scenario for Bettman, who has seen how devastating missed seasons can be. After shutting down for the last lockout in 2021-13, the NHL saw a huge dip in popularity—but more importantly a big dip in its business. Another lost season could be crippling to a league that continues to lose ground in the North American sports landscape.

It would appear that over the last week talks between the league and the NHLPA have only increased the desire from some owners to shut down. The players don’t want to give even more back, and the owners know they can’t operate with the current business model. The two sides appear to be at the kind of stalemate that is hard to overcome.

Over the last few days, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun has reported that the NHLPA held firm in its belief that the league’s owners should hold to the agreement the two sides made back in June. The CBA extension was negotiated in good faith, and now the league wants to change it again—something the NHLPA wants to avoid at all costs.

This has led to the idea that the NHL owners could evoke a “force majeure” clause in the CBA that would allow them to cancel a season despite the players association asserting that it would be an “illegal lockout.”

What is force majeure?

A common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic or an event described by the legal term act of God, prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

The global COVID-19 pandemic would certainly fit within that definition.

This idea being floated in the media could be a negotiating ploy to get the players to give back even more. But if it’s not, we could be looking at no NHL hockey until next fall.

Either way, at the very least the NHL won’t be starting back on January 1st the way Bettman wants, and if we do get a 2021 season, it’s almost certainly not going to be close to the regular 82 games. With NBC’s desire to have the season concluded before its coverage of the Tokyo Olympic Games starts next summer, many have identified mid-February as the absolute latest the season could get under way. The window is closing, and the two sides aren’t even sitting down to discuss the issues.

The lack of urgency is troubling and points to the fact that many on the league’s side would be completely OK with the season being cancelled. There is growing pessimism around the whole thing, but that seems to be the case when the NHL does its best work—maybe the league will be able to pull off a miracle for its fans this holiday season.

Poll

Do you think we will get a 2021 NHL season?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Yes - I’m optimistic
    (174 votes)
  • 64%
    See you in October
    (316 votes)
490 votes total Vote Now