Game on. Finally.
The NHL and its players agreed Friday evening to salvage hockey from its protracted stay in cold storage and resume play Aug. 1, after nearly a five-month hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As expected in recent weeks, the sides agreed both to an intricate return-to-play plan — a full Bruins squad will practice Monday in Brighton — as well as a four-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that will run through at least the spring of 2026.
The league and its players’ union announced ratification of the deals shortly after 7 p.m., with commissioner Gary Bettman praising the oft-warring sides for “coming together under extraordinary circumstances for the good of our game.”
The players, represented by the NHL Players’ Association, ratified both via a rank-and-file vote that began earlier in the week. Meanwhile, the league’s Board of Governors applied the rubber stamp to the plan presented by Bettman.
The Bruins, along with 23 other NHL teams, now will prepare for games that begin at two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, on Aug. 1.
The Bruins, who will work out at their Brighton/Warrior practice facility, will report to the Toronto hub July 26 and play at least one exhibition game there before formally beginning postseason play Aug. 2 in a round-robin game against the Flyers. Their last game during the regular season was in Philly on March 10.
Eight of the teams reporting to the hubs, including the No. 1 ranked Bruins, will play in the non-elimination, round-robin format aimed at determining seed placement in the top four spots of both the East and West conferences.
Meanwhile, 16 of the 24 teams will square off in a best-of-five-game elimination tournament, also known as the play-in or qualifying round, to determine seeds Nos. 5-8 in each of the two conferences.
The Bruins also will face Tampa (Aug. 5) and Washington (Aug. 8) in the round-robin format before formally entering elimination play Aug. 11 or 12.
All of this, of course, assumes the teams can practice for the better part of the next two weeks and not be forced to close shop because of the pandemic. It is possible the coronavirus, which has been on a frightening uptick in many United States citiesthis month, ultimately scuttles the elaborate RTP scheme, which would mean no Cup champion would be crowned for 2020.
No matter the outcome of the RTP, the CBA is a done deal, extended four years beyond its 2022 expiration date. The deal also provides conditions that could see the CBA extended through the 2026-27 season.
In agreeing to the extension, the players accepted what amounts to a flat cap, set at $81.5 million, for the next couple of years and possibly longer. All depending on how fast revenue streams are replenished.
Not an ideal situation for a group accustomed to steady cap increases the last 15 years, dating to the inception of a $39 million cap, but it allows them a degree of employment security and wealth at a time when much of the world’s economics have been dramatically disrupted.
If the Bruins again can reach the Cup final — as they did last spring — play against the Western Conference champ would begin Sept. 22. The latest date for a Game 7: Oct. 4.
When play was suspended March 12, the Bruins stood a league-best 44-14-12 (100 points/.714 points percentage), a standing that in normal times would guarantee them home ice for the duration of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Because of COVID-19, nothing today is normal times. The Bruins will play the three games in the upcoming round-robin tournament, hope to hold their No. 1 standing, and then face the No. 8 seed in the east. However, they could slip as far as No. 4 in the East and be forced to square off against No. 5 in the best-of-seven opening round of the playoffs.
Per usual, all four rounds of the 16-team tournament will be best-of-seven affairs. The conference finals — Round 3 of the playoffs — will be played in Edmonton, the Western hub. The northern Alberta city also will play host to the Stanley Cup final, the same place where the Bruins faced the Oilers during the 1990 Cup Final.
The Bruins were nursing injuries to their back line when play was suspended. Both of their second-unit defensemen, Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, were out with niggling injuries. Both are expected to be in camp off the hop on Monday and will join a formidable crew that includes pairings of Charlie McAvoy and captain Zdeno Chara and No. 3 duo of Matt Grzelcyk and likely Jeremy Lauzon.
Rock-hard defensemen Kevan Miller, still struggling with his rehab from knee fractures, was ruled permanently out of action for the remainder of the season by GM Don Sweeney.
The new CBA will allow NHL players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Olympic Games, provided the NHL can come to a suitable agreement with the IOC and the IIHF.
Later this month, clubs will be allowed a maximum 31 players — essentially an 11-man taxi squad — when they report to the hubs. Each club also will be allowed to bring 21 additional employees, including team managers, coaches, trainers, medical staff, etc.
As of early Friday evening, the Bruins had not released a training camp roster. It’s likely they’ll make that public on Saturday.