TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Hockey League will resume its virus-interrupted season next month with a Stanley Cup tournament in Canada after players ratified a return-to-play plan and extension to a labor deal, both sides said on Friday.
An expanded 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs will now start on Aug. 1 in Edmonton and Toronto without fans, nearly five months after the NHL halted its season due to COVID-19.
“Today the NHL and 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 continued long-term growth in our league,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
“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.”
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr called the deal “a meaningful step forward for the players and owners, and for our game, in a difficult and uncertain time.
“Most importantly, we are pleased to be able to bring NHL hockey back to the fans,” he said.
A key part of the labor agreement, which will extend the current deal that ends September 2022 for four years until 2026, is a pact to have the world’s best ice hockey players return to the global stage in 2022 and 2026 after the NHL sat out the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
The decision to return to the Olympics, however, is still pending negotiation with both the International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee.
There were three weeks and 189 games left in the NHL’s 2019-20 regular season when play was suspended in March, but the league eventually declared the regular season over in favor of getting right into the post season.
Absent a COVID-19 outbreak that brings a halt to action, the Stanley Cup, traditionally awarded in June, would be presented in October.
The concept of staging the playoffs in two hub cities is the NHL’s attempt to minimize COVID-risk by limiting travel for the participating teams, who will all be tested prior to departure and on a regular basis once inside the secure zone.
The NHL’s Western Conference teams will play in Edmonton while the Eastern Conference teams will start competition in Toronto. Edmonton will host both conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final.
Under the unique playoff format, the top four seeds in each conference will receive byes through a play-in tournament but would take part in a three-game round-robin to stay fresh.
The other 16 teams would compete in a play-in round featuring best-of-five series to determine the rest of a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket.
Additional reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Sandra Maler, Dan Grebler and Sonya Hepinstall