NHL will reportedly reject Chicago, choose Toronto and Edmonton as hub cities

The Blackhawks now may have to play the Oilers at the Oilers’ home rink.

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Edmonton’s Rogers Place will reportedly half-host the NHL playoffs, but with no fans — unlike the Blackhawks-Oilers game (seen here) on Feb. 11.

Ben Pope/Sun-Times

Chicago’s fascinating surge into the five finalists to be a hub city for the Stanley Cup playoffs is over.

The NHL will, in all likelihood, choose Toronto and Edmonton as its hubs, according to multiple reports Wednesday from TSN and Sportsnet.

Las Vegas — long considered the clear front-runner because of its many hotels next to T-Mobile Arena — ultimately was passed over because of skyrocketing coronavirus cases in Nevada.

Meanwhile, one of Chicago’s biggest selling points to the NHL had become its COVID-19 situation, with Illinois’ numbers falling dramatically in the last month. But the lack of hotels near the United Center was always a major roadblock.

Edmonton and Toronto have relatively encouraging coronavirus situations — Canada has enforced quarantine and travel rules more strictly than the U.S. — and numerous high-end hotels in the blocks surrounding their arenas. Edmonton’s Rogers Place, the league’s second-newest arena, even has a Marriott connected to it.

The NHL negotiated an agreement with Canadian officials last month that will exempt NHL players and staff from those quarantine and travel restrictions, making Canadian cities far more viable as hosts than they otherwise would’ve been. 

It hasn’t been determined whether the conferences will play in their geographically logical hubs or switch sides of the continent, but if the Western Conference playoffs take place in Edmonton, the Blackhawks would face the Oilers for their qualifying-round series at the Oilers’ home rink.

The effect of that home-ice advantage would be limited somewhat by the lack of fans, but it’s still unfortunate for the Hawks.

There was a chance the Hawks themselves might end up with that advantage. The league had previously eliminated Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh and Vancouver from its original group of 10 hub-city candidates, narrowing the pool to Chicago, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Toronto.

Area officials, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and state Rep. Mike Zalewski, had publicly campaigned for the NHL to choose their city, citing the economic impact it would bring to struggling West Loop hotels and restaurants and suburban sportsbooks.

More bad news for Hawks

The NHL news Wednesday didn’t end with the hub-city selections, and none of the other reports were good for the Hawks, either.

The league salary cap will stay at $81.5 million the next two years, then rise to only $82.5 million in 2022-23, per Sportsnet.

That’s bad for the Hawks in the short and long term.

In the short term, their many huge contracts to aging veterans — including the particularly regrettable one for Brent Seabrook — provide little flexibility, especially with key young forwards Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik up for big raises after the season and goalie Corey Crawford a pending free agent.

In the long term, the Hawks’ status as a high-income, big-market franchise makes them fundamentally disadvantaged by a strict cap.

Additionally, non-NHL players signed to NHL contracts during the pandemic — including the Hawks’ Ian Mitchell — won’t be eligible to play in the upcoming playoffs, TSN reported. Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said last month he already has been operating under that assumption.

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