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Gary Bettman: “NHL Hockey is Back”

Photo by Dave Sandford

Gary Bettman: “NHL Hockey is Back”

On Tuesday afternoon, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman made the announcement that the 2019-20 NHL regular season is officially over, and the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin in the coming months.

Bettman outlined the steps including the four phases of the approved return-to-play scenario in his announcement Tuesday. With the help of Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele, Toronto’s John Tavares, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Philadelphia’s James van Riemsdyk and Ottawa’s Ron Hainsey, the return-to-play committee put together an approved model that will see 24 of the league’s 31 teams begin playing meaningful hockey games again soon.

Despite all of the careful consideration and planning techniques put into this new playoff structure, it very well may go to waste, as Bettman indicated that none of this would even be possible should the governing health authorities disallow the propositions. Bettman’s announcement also did not cover player PPE or measures taken within the arenas/dressing rooms/showers that would need significant changes in the housing of 150+ people for just one NHL game.

What he did speak of was the fact that 10 cities remain under consideration (Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver) while one will be chosen to host the Eastern Conference postseason, while another will play host to the Western Conference. 

24 teams (12 from each conference) have qualified for the postseason, based on points percentage by the March 12 season pause. The top-four teams in each conference will automatically make the first round of the playoffs, while teams ranked 5-12 will battle it out in best-of-five matchups. It has yet to be determined if a bracketed order or divisional seedings will be used moving forward.

The top-four teams will also play a round robin tournament to determine final seeding heading into the opening round. The Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series’, while the first and second rounds will be either five or seven games – depending on the original start date.

Phase II of the return to play outlook is set to begin in early June, in which players will be allowed to return to host cities and practice/train in small groups at their team facilities. Phase III will be no earlier than July 1, which would officially mark the opening of ‘training camp’. While Phase IV would see the participating teams move to the hub cities following training camp.

“This is dealing with a very unique situation,” Bettman said. “And to be fair, there were a number of teams, because of our competitive balance, that were on the bubble when we took the pause. And then to just simply say, ‘we’re taking the top-16,’ with everybody having played a different number of games by that point, it was so close. This, in my view, is a once in a lifetime thing.”

Set qualifying round, best-of-five matchups are as follows:

Eastern Conference:

  • No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
  • No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
  • No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
  • No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Western Conference:

  • No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
  • No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
  • No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
  • No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas would each receive play-in byes, but continue to battle for final seeding/ranking. Winnipeg and Calgary would be the only all-Canadian matchup, and the first playoff matchup between the two rivals since 1987 – the third-straight year in which the teams met in the postseason. Winnipeg beat Calgary in its 1985 and 1987 series’. With both clubs the healthiest they have ever been, it is expected to be a fabulous best-of-five qualifying round series.

Bettman said that the NHL took a long look at what German soccer, NASCAR and UFC has done in each relaunch over the past month, putting relevance to the question of what hockey might look like upon its return.

“It’s another data point,” Bettman said. “All the other major leagues in North America, I assume, are going through the same things that we are. Maybe they’re not as far along as we are, but they’re all going through the same thing. It’s another data point. We have to take it into account, and we have to see what is doable, and we have to see where there are problems and what you can do that will be a little different.”

“As we will be playing without fans, what will we do so that the experience is one that conveys itself well on television?” Bettman asked. “And so the number of things that we’ve got to check the boxes on other than simply playing is off the charts. From the moment we caused the pause, we have been focused on, ‘what will our options be?’.”

Player testing would be done at quite an expense, all covered by the NHL, upwards of millions of dollars. Roughly 25-30K tests would need to be done during the individual phases of the return-to-play scenario. In the meantime, the NHL also reached an agreement with the Canadian federal government to allow the professional athletes from USA or Europe back into Canada to their host cities.

The commissioner also announced that the league will host a potential two-phase NHL Draft Lottery, with Phase I held on June 26, and a potential Phase II between the second and third round of the postseason, depending on the results of Phase I.

Bettman explained that it is paramount to see a full 2020-21 NHL season, with a start date expected to come somewhere from December 1-January 1. This will allow for the playoffs to be completed mid-summer, in time for the 2021 Summer Olympics.

With official Phase II dates, player contracts, host cities and information regarding player living arrangements yet to be determined, the work of Gary Bettman, Mark Scheifele and Co. is far from over. Should a second wave of COVID-19 sweep through North America, its safe to say that a lot more than just hockey would be cancelled. But for now, the league is set to make a return in the coming months – most likely August – and the Winnipeg Jets have a qualifying round postseason matchup set in place.

Winnipeg vs. Calgary. Date and venue TBD.

Carter Brooks - Associate Editor of Game On Magazine - is a news writer and sports columnist situated in Winnipeg, MB. On top of reading and writing, coaching hockey is his favourite pastime. Carter can be reached at carterbrooks1994@gmail.com

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