Sports·The Buzzer

The NHL isn't back in the Olympics just yet

Thursday's edition of CBC Sports' daily newsletter, The Buzzer, features the latest on the NHL's return to play, a WNBA star helping free a prisoner and why Bobby Bonilla loves Canada Day.

2022 return reportedly part of league's return-to-play deal, pending IOC approval

The NHL's return to the Olympics for 2022 could be part of the league's return-to-play agreement. (Martin Rose/Getty Images)

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This July 1 didn't bring us the usual frenzy of free-agent signings, but it ended up being a pretty newsy day for the NHL anyway.

Several "insiders" reported that the league and the players' union have reached agreement on the major issues that needed to get settled in order to go ahead with the 24-team playoff tournament they've already signed off on. A few things, reportedly, still need ironing out before the sides can announce a tentative agreement, which would then have to be ratified by the owners (two-third approval is required) and the players (a simple majority).

Only then will the deal truly be done. Things can change in the meantime. But it sounds like we're getting close, so here's a look at the two most interesting items reported from the expected agreement:

Edmonton and Toronto will be the hub cities. This was a bit of a surprise because Las Vegas was considered a lock from the start. And as recently as last week, Vancouver looked to have the inside track on the other spot. But health officials in B.C. balked at some aspects of the plan, and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Nevada may have scared the NHL off of Vegas. So now, reportedly, Edmonton will host all the Western Conference games and Toronto will get the East. TSN's Bob McKenzie reported today that the Stanley Cup final will be in Edmonton. Read more about the reported choosing of hub cities here.

NHL players could be returning to the Olympics. Along with deciding on the hub cities and hammering out all the details of life inside the "bubbles" that will be set up there (testing, other health and safety protocols, hotels, dining, entertainment, etc., etc….), the NHL and the players' union have also been negotiating an extension to their collective bargaining agreement. Part of that, reportedly, is an agreement that the NHL will participate in the next two Winter Olympics — 2022 in Beijing and 2026 in northern Italy. This is great news for anyone who tried to put on a brave face for the NHL-free men's tournament in 2018.

But curb your enthusiasm for now because the NHL would still need to reach a financial agreement with the International Olympic Committee. You might remember that the cost of insurance and accommodations for the players was a major sticking point that led to the NHL bailing on the Olympics in '18. And even after the IIHF (hockey's world governing body) stepped in and said it would pay for that stuff, the IOC rejected the NHL's demand for certain marketing/content rights in exchange for sending its players. However, if an intention to play in the Olympics is included in the CBA extension, that would at least signal a greater willingness by the league to allow its players back in the Games.

Quickly...

Looks like the Blue Jays are flying north. Major League Baseball players reported to their teams yesterday to get tested for COVID-19 and start settling in for a short second training camp before the season starts in three weeks. If all goes well, everyone should be working out on their home fields over the weekend. That should include the Toronto Blue Jays, who have officially received their long-awaited quarantine-exemption letter from the Canadian government. Sportsnet's Shi Davidi reported that the federal government is still mulling the Jays' request to play their regular-season home games in Toronto. That one is a little trickier for health officials because it involves the Jays and visiting players coming in and out of town throughout the 60-game season. Read more about the Jays' spring training 2.0 here.

WNBA star Maya Moore helped get a man released from prison. A 40-year-old Black man from Missouri named Jonathan Irons was serving a 50-year sentence for what police said was a burglary and shooting at the home of a white man who was shot but not killed. Irons, who was 16 when the incident occurred, insisted he was not there and was misidentified. Moore met Irons during a prison visit in 2007 — right before her freshman year at the University of Connecticut, where she became a star — and joined the fight to have his conviction erased. One of the reasons she decided to take last season off from the WNBA (and plans to take another) was so she could focus on getting Irons freed.

The efforts paid off in March when a judge vacated the conviction, calling the case against Irons "very weak and circumstantial at best." The state's appeals were unsuccessful, and when the county prosecutor decided yesterday to decline a retrial, Irons was released from prison. Moore was one of the people there to greet him. Her example seems to be inspiring other WNBA players now too. Atlanta Dream guards Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, who both played with Moore at UConn, say they're taking the upcoming season off to help with social justice reform and voter registration. Read more about how Moore helped free Irons here.

The PGA Tour made an interesting change to the way it handles positive tests. The tour's Health and Safety Plan is what you might call a living document. Originally, any player or caddie who tested positive for COVID-19 was required to complete a minimum 10-day isolation period before being allowed back. But after several cases of asymptomatic positive tests followed by negative tests, the tour is softening that stance. Now, if someone tests positive but has not had any symptoms, they just have to return two negative tests (taken at least 24 hours apart) in order to get back on the course. The tour says this change is supported by the Centers for Disease Control.

The first beneficiary of the new policy is Cameron Champ. He had to withdraw from last week's tournament after testing positive, but was cleared to play in the event that teed off today after testing negative three times in the 72 hours following his positive test. Even if you're not a golf fan, this is an interesting development for sports in the COVID-19 age. It's possible the NHL, NBA, NFL or MLB could see this as a way to get their own stars back out there as quickly as possible (and salvage the legitimacy of their games) in the event of a positive test. Read more about the PGA Tour's COVID-19 policy changes here.

The NFL is reportedly cutting its pre-season in half. This would have been a good idea even before the pandemic. But after an off-season in which teams haven't been allowed to gather for their usual workouts and mini-camps, the NFL decided to give them more time to practice (and less chance to come into contact with a group of different people) by cancelling the first week of the pre-season (Aug. 13-16). The fourth and final round of pre-season games (Sept. 3) was also called off. Training camps are still set to open July 28, and Week 1 of the regular season kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 10 with a primetime matchup between Houston and Super Bowl champion Kansas City. Though it looks increasingly unlikely, the NFL is still hoping to have fans in stadiums to start the season. Some teams have told season-ticket holders that their seating capacity may be reduced. Read more about the NFL chopping its exhibition games here.

The French Open is planning to have fans too. Given that France currently has about 1/11th the confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people that the U.S. does, the French Open's chances of pulling this off seem much better than the NFL's. The French Tennis Federation said that up to 60 per cent of the stands can be filled when the clay-court Grand Slam tournament starts Sept. 20 (it was moved a while ago from its usual May start date). Up to four people can sit together in a group, with at least one seat separating each group in the same row. Fans will be required to wear masks when they're moving about the grounds, but not while they're watching a match.

And finally…

Hopefully you had a good Canada Day. But it probably wasn't as good as Bobby Bonilla's. Yesterday -- just like he has every July 1 since 2011 — the former big-league ballplayer received a cheque for nearly $1.2 million US from the New York Mets. And he'll keep getting them every July 1 until 2035. This unusual arrangement stems from the Mets' deal to buy out the rest of Bonilla's contract back in 2000. Instead of paying him the $5.9 million they still owed him up front, the Mets agreed to give Bonilla almost $1.2 million every year for 25 years, starting in 2011. That works out to about $30 million — the result of the 8 per cent interest rate that Bonilla's reps negotiated with the Mets. That's a pretty sweet rate of return by today's standards for most people. But the Wilpon family, which owns the Mets, was reportedly OK with this because it was making double-digit returns from its investments with Bernie Madoff. And you wonder why the Mets haven't won the World Series in 34 years.

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