It’s officially hockey season.
And, yes, it is still July.
On Friday, the National Hockey League and its players’ association not only formally ratified a four-year Collective Bargaining Agreement which not only means future labor peace, but an immediate return to hockey.
Training camps for the 24 teams in the Return to Play system — including the Florida Panthers — can begin Monday with the Stanley Cup play-in qualifying tournaments starting Aug. 1.
The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders will kick off their best-of-5 qualifying series on Aug. 1 with Game 2 on Aug. 4 in a rematch of the 2016 opening round.
If Florida was to advance past the Islanders (a team they went 0-2-1 against this season), it would only be the sixth time in franchise history that the Panthers participated in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Florida Panthers, like the rest of the Eastern Conference teams, will be headquartered in Toronto until eliminated or advancement to the east finals which are scheduled to be held in the Western Conference hub city of Edmonton.
“We want to win,’’ captain Sasha Barkov, one of four Florida players remaining from the 2016 loss to the Islanders in the playoffs.
“We will do everything we can. The guys are in good shape and everyone has the mindset that we’re going to try and win the Stanley Cup.”
Each of the remaining 24 teams will be allowed 52 individuals within their travel party which includes a maximum of 31 players. Those 52 people will live within a strictly monitored “bubble” the league is calling the Phase 4 Secure Zone.
The NHL has been on pause since stopping its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12.
“While we have all worked very hard to try to address the risks of COVID-19, we know that health and safety are and will continue to be our priorities,’’ commissioner Gary Bettman said in a release.
“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 onMarch 12.”
Other dates officially announced by the league on Friday include a second phase of the draft lottery in which one of the losing teams from the qualifying round will win the top pick in the 2020 draft.
It's officially, official!
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) July 11, 2020
The draft, originally scheduled to be held last month in Montreal, will be held in October following the conclusion of the Cup playoffs. The league has tentatively scheduled the draft on Oct. 9-10.
The start of the free agency period, usually on July 1, will follow the draft in early October. The start of training camp for the 2020-21 season is thought to come sometime in November.