When will the New York Rangers play hockey again?

The New York Rangers are getting closer to playing again after high level meetings about the return to play

There was a lot of progress made in discussions between the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA).  There were also some issues that came up that may take some time to resolve.  Right now, we can expect to see the New York Rangers back in action on January 1, but that date is still not set in stone.

From numerous reports from hockey insiders, here are the highlights.

  • Gary Bettman is determined to start the season on January 1.  If that is to happen, teams will have to begin training camps in mid-December.
  • The season will be at least 60 games.   That’s the minimum while there is a desire to play as many as 70 games.  Gary Bettman has ruled out a 48 game season.
  • Teams will likely play games only against teams in their own divisions and the NHL is expected to divide into four new, renamed divisions by geography.  There is still the possibility of a Canadian division due to border quarantine issues and there may be more than four divisions.
  • The league will adopt a baseball-like series format with teams playing two or three games in a city at a time to minimize travel.
  • The NHL is open to beginning the season with a regionalized “bubble” system, switching to home arenas if the pandemic issues lessen. Eventually, games will be played in home arenas and the ability of fans to see the games will be determined by the local government health rules. That means in some markets there will be no fans and in others there could be arenas that are half full. The NHL has made it clear that they do not want to play the entire season in the bubble system.
  • There will be a cushion in between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs in mid-May for teams to schedule make-up games that are postponed due to the coronavirus.  If those dates are not needed, the playoffs will start earlier.
  • The last possible day for the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be July 15.
  • If they can finish the playoffs earlier than July 15, it will help the 2021-22 season begin at the usual time (early October).

Labor issues

While it is clear that both the owners and players want to get the season started, the talk hit a roadblock on Wednesday.   The issues are salary deferral and the cap on escrow.  Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet spelled out the issues on Sportsnet’s website.

The bottom line is the NHLPA and the owners hammered out an agreement in June that allowed the NHL to resume play.  At that time they set limits on escrow and deferrals.  This week, the NHL went back to the NHLPA and asked for increases in both for this season.  From reports, the players were very upset that the owners have asked to revisit numbers that had already been agreed upon.

The players had agreed to defer 10% of their salaries for the coming season with the deferred pay to be repaid beginning in October 2022.   Reports are that the owners want to double the deferred pay to 20%.

Escrow is a complicated issue.  It’s basically money that is withheld from the players’ salaries to cover any revenue shortfalls incurred by the owners.  According to the CBA the players and owners split revenue 50/50 and the owners took a huge hit from the pandemic.  Normally, escrow is about 5-6 percent, for the coming season it was set at 20%.   The owners reportedly asked that the escrow cap be increased to 25%.

The players are upset because with these new numbers, they will earn about 62% of their contracted salaries and they feel that negotiated the earlier numbers in good faith.  It’s a sticky wicket.

It’s worth noting that the two sides were able to avoid any discussion of prorating salaries this season, an issue that became very ugly for Major League Baseball.

What should happen

It’s a sensitive time in the negotiations and what this latest issue means is we aren’t going to have a return to play plan in place anytime soon.  There had been speculation that it could come as early as this weekend.  Now, it will take a few more days, probably past Thanksgiving.

The fact is the players and the owners are sensitive to the fact that so many people have been hurt by COVID-19.  The optics of owners and players squabbling over salaries when they will still be making seven figures is something they will want to avoid.  It won’t get them much sympathy.

The good news is the NHL is set on a January 1 start date and they are fighting to make that happen. Training camps are supposed to last two weeks with a handful of preseason games.  Teams that didn’t make the Qualifiers will get an extra week of training camp.

With the AHL starting their season on February 5, it’s been reported that NHL teams will be able to keep their AHL players with the team until teams like the Wolf Pack are ready to begin their own training camps in late January.

Summing up

There are thousands of details to resolve before the NHL can start playing again.  They have a head start from the “Return to Play Protocol” that was established before the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last June.   You can be sure we will be getting numerous updates over the coming days as the NHL, the owners and the players resolve their issues.

What about being able to see the Rangers at Madison Square Garden?  New York State has a set of rules concerning professional sports and they clearly spell out that there will be no fans, saying “no live audience, fans, or spectators are allowed to attend or permitted to enter any professional sports venue, even if an outdoor venue.” Of course, if vaccine distribution can reduce the COVID-19 risk, that could and will change.

So, that means even if the Rangers open the season on January 1, we will all be watching on television.  That’s an option that all Blueshirts fans would welcome if it means Rangers hockey is back again.