The National Hockey League has been on hiatus since March 12. On Thursday, the league announced that no formal decision has yet been made for the resumption of the season/postsesaon, however, with many local jurisdictions beginning to ease the social distancing measures, paired with the continuation of meetings between the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee, things are starting to look up.
With a number of various reports floating around, there has not yet been any official statement on a proposed model or potential timeline for any return to play scenario. Mark Scheifele – who serves as a part of the Return to Play Committee alongside Toronto’s John Tavares – continues to discuss many possibilities as the group meets weekly by way of virtual web conferences.
The NHLPA released a statement indicating that Phase II of the transition period – which would see players and team staff begin to slowly return to home team facilities for small group activities and workouts (while observing safe and appropriate social distancing measures) – is expected to begin in “mid-to-late May”. While specific day-to-day guidelines and administration would be put into effect at that point, players and staff are expected to continue following the set rules of self-isolation during the weeks leading to Phase II.
A number of return to play scenarios have been offered up, including an inclusive postseason consisting of upwards of 24 teams, an immediate postseason based on current points percentage, as well as the completion of the remaining 15 percent of the 2019-20 season.
An idea of selecting a number of host cities for divisional teams to play three games per day out of to conclude the remainder of the season in two weeks is a suggestion looked highly upon by the NHL front office. However, concerns have been raised as to the segregation of players in the selected cities, living in hotels, as compared to with their families at home or on the road.
This idea – much like any other suggestion that comes into play – would have to pass through the NHL Players Association, which needs to approve any return to play decision, as per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, and decisions made upon the immediate halt of the 2019-20 season.
Unfortunately for those players living/quarantining in North America, skating has not been an option, but those living in countries such as Sweden may have a slight advantage, as ice skating can be a part of daily activity. However, those self-isolating in European countries may find more difficulty returning to their home cities/countries with borders closed and 14-day mandatory quarantine periods.
Following Phase II, Phase III (an approximate two-week training camp period) would commence. If all follows plan with no incident, Phase IV would see a return to scheduled games – whether that is regular season or playoffs remains up in the air.
Should the NHL and NHLPA choose to go in the direction of completing the regular season and postseason, a shortened offseason as well as the elimination of the awards show and other festivities would need to occur. In order to manage a full 82-game 2020-21 season before the now 2021 Summer Olympics occur, next year’s season would need to get underway in mid-December – an option that many are surprisingly comfortable with.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has remained adamant that he wants to see the duration of the 2019-20 season played out in full before a postseason of sorts gets underway. This way of thinking would need to take significant amounts of consideration for the upcoming 2020-21 season, as the limitations of ‘return to play’ have not yet been set, date-wise in any of the NHL’s host cities.
“We have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when we can start,” Bettman said in an interview with NHL Network. “There is no magic for next season of starting in October as we traditionally do. If we have to start in November or December, that’s something that will be under consideration… We’re going to try and make good, prudent, careful judgments. This isn’t a race to be first back. When we come back, we want it to be at the right time, for the right reasons, under the right circumstances.”
In order to make both the continuation of the 2019-20 season and a full 2020-21 season work, the All-Star Weekend, individual team bye weeks and a shortened holiday week would need to occur in 2020-21. That would work hand-in-hand with a shortened offseason and at least a two-week ‘training camp’ in Phase III to ensure players do not hurt themselves while playing significantly more hockey in a period of time than they normally would.
“We’d like our guys to be able to work themselves back into shape,” Bettman continued. “But this is something we’re going to continue to evaluate on a day-to-day basis. Our health concerns for the players really fit into two categories: One is obviously COVID-19, and two, whatever we’re going to do, we don’t want them playing games until they’re back in game shape… So we’re going to continue to monitor things, and when the guidance from the medical people is right and the governmental authorities are comfortable, then we’ll take step one, which is reopening our training facilities.”
Now 50 days since NHL hockey has been played, the league has announced that the 2020 NHL Entry Draft will no longer be held in Montreal, rather the NHL will mirror the NFL’s virtual draft either this June, or following the completion of the season. With the new Seattle NHL franchise having been expected to host the 2021 draft, the NHL very well may award the 2022 draft back to Montreal.
With a number of the current 31 NHL cities and some other centralized locations offering up their facilities for NHL action, the league has provided these interested communities with a document highlighting the necessary steps that will need to be taken in order to qualify as a potential host city for the resumption of play.
Earlier it was announced that host cities would need to have four NHL-calibre dressing rooms within the main arena, multiple four-to-five star hotels in the near vicinity, while also having NHL-sized practice ice and training facility nearby. Of the non-NHL markets, Regina, Saskatoon, Salt Lake City, Grand Forks and Manchester appear to be the frontrunners to be potential landing points as neutral-site game locations.
With much of the decision making process left in the hands of the NHL, the NHLPA, the Return to Play Committee, the Commissioner and the municipal, provincial, federal and state health authorities and governments, it is really anyone’s guess as to who, what, when, where and why the NHL does or does not resume play for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.