The Capital One Arena, home of the Washington Capitals, on...

The Capital One Arena, home of the Washington Capitals, on March 12, 2020. Credit: AP/Nick Wass

A huge financial obstacle to the NHL playing a 2020-21 season has seemingly been avoided.

Other hurdles remain with the COVID-19 pandemic still causing economic and health and safety hardships. But TSN reported on Tuesday that the league and the NHL Players’ Association have agreed to operate under the financial framework of the collective bargaining agreement ratified by both sides in July, rather than the owners pushing for further salary deferrals and increased escrow charges from the players.

The league is reportedly targeting Jan. 13 as the start date for a truncated, 56-game regular season with the 31 teams realigned into four divisions to limit travel, with teams only playing divisional opponents. That would include all seven Canadian teams in one division given the U.S.-Canada border restrictions.

There would be a 10-day training camp without preseason games, though the seven teams that did not qualify for the postseason when last season resumed in August — the Devils, Kings, Senators, Sharks, Red Wings, Sabres and Ducks — may get extra training time.

But nothing has been finalized and there is still a long list of issues to be resolved with regard to scheduling, health and safety protocols, divisional alignment, roster and potential taxi squad sizes and players’ ability to opt out.

Plus, there are owners reluctant to start the season given the huge economic losses of playing in empty arenas. NHL revenue is heavily gate driven and Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley said in October many teams would not be financially viable without fans in the buildings. He added "40 or 50% attendance" was needed

Where the games will be played is also still unresolved. The NHL completed its postseason in sequestered bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

Teams are hoping to use their home arenas, despite the likelihood of limited to zero fan attendance, at least to start the season. Different regions have different restrictions. For instance, Santa Clara County in California has temporarily banned contact sports because of COVID-19, so the Sharks may not be able to play home games in San Jose, just as the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers are now playing their home games in Arizona.

Similar restrictions were enacted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in October so it’s likewise questionable the Jets would be able to use their home arena.

So, local, state and federal authorities, in addition to the NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA membership, will all have to approve any return-to-play plan. The Board of Governors will meet on Wednesday.

Yet, the seeming financial stalemate over deferrals and escrow rates loomed as the most significant barrier to playing games.

The salary cap remains flat at $81.5 million, perhaps for multiple seasons and, in July, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed the players would defer 10% of their salary in 2020-21 and escrow would be capped at 20% for the upcoming season, then between 14-18% in 2021-22, 10% in 2022-23 and at 6% for the remaining three seasons of the new CBA.

But, in November, the NHL proposed further salary deferrals from the NHLPA, perhaps up to an additional 16%, as well as a request to raise the escrow percentage over the life of the new CBA.

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