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NHL and players agree to start postseason tourney on Aug. 1



By Andrew Knoll


The National Hockey League and its players union announced earlier this week that the two groups agreed on a four-year extension to the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a pivotal decision that paves the way for hockey to resume play amid the coronavirus pandemic.


As part of the deal, the sides set dates for the so-called Phase 3 and 4 of a return to play protocol. The start of formal training camps is slated for July 13, with teams traveling to two hub cities starting July 26. The existing CBA carries the league through the next Olympics — NHL players will participate after not playing in 2018 — and also beyond a period of uncertainty into one where salary cap numbers and escrow percentages can be more clearly planned.


The league reportedly selected Edmonton and Toronto as the two so-called hub cities that will host its proposed return to play, but is awaiting approval from the players union. An expanded 24-team playoff would unfold with the Western Conference teams vying in Edmonton and the Eastern Conference side of the bracket contested in Toronto, starting Aug. 1.


The selection of the two Canadian cities was made over the course of a month, after the NHL whittled down a list that initially included 10 potential hub cities. The pool was reduced to five — Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles were the other candidates — after considering public health statistics and other data.


In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters last week that Canada had likely surmounted the worst of the outbreak. He also said that conditions in the United States — which has seen upticks in cases since reopening significant portions of its economy — were causes for concern and could help guide Canada as they incrementally reopen following the quarantine period.


Selecting a hub city in the United States would have required work with not only local and provincial officials but authorities on the national level in Canada in order to permit movement across the border between the two countries, which has been restricted heavily during the outbreak. The current restrictions prohibiting nonessential travel between the two countries expire July 21, before the tournament begins.


The NHL said Monday that public health concerns trumped location in choosing the sites. It ultimately placed the Eastern teams, including the Maple Leafs, in Toronto, and the Western ones, including the Oilers, in Edmonton.


Toronto, the largest and most diverse city in Canada, is a market critical to the future of hockey. Hosting the Eastern Conference there gives the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs an advantage in these recast playoffs, where they will play the ninth-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets in a best of five play-in series. Toronto had reported fewer than 15,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and around 1,000 deaths as of July 1.


Thanks largely to its favorable public health conditions, Edmonton surged past early favorites Las Vegas, where the league usually holds its annual awards in the summer, and Vancouver, whose health officials reportedly had conflicted with the league over protocols if a player tested positive for the virus. There were just over 8,000 confirmed cases and about 150 deaths in Edmonton as of July 1.


Edmonton offered both a connection to hockey’s future — its Rogers Place arena opened in 2016 with a nearby entertainment district — and the game’s past, having been nicknamed “the city of champions” during the Oilers’ run to five Stanley Cups in the 1980s. The fifth-seeded Oilers will host the No. 12 seed Chicago Blackhawks in their playoff matchup.


The playoffs will open with a five-game play-in series followed by a conference-based first round with a three-game round robin format to determine the top four seedings. Teams qualified for the postseason based on their points percentages at the time the season was suspended, and will be reseeded after each round of the playoffs. The location of the Stanley Cup Final has not been determined.

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