The wait for the return of NHL hockey may not be quite as long as you had originally thought. Following an intricately run 2020 postseason, the Stanley Cup Playoffs officially came to a close on September 28 with the presentation of the greatest trophy in all of sports to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Following the conclusion of a successfully run bubble playoff experience, the NHL then held its first ever virtual draft in early October, followed by the opening of the free agency period. With most of the available big-name stars now off the board, attention has turned back to the opening of the 2020-21 season.
With many hoping to see the year kicked off with a ‘Winter Classic’ of sorts, the NHL recently announced that All-Star Weekend and the Winter Classic would be scrapped for the 2020-21 season, in order to get through all games in a timely manner. Only up until this week had a schedule with anything than 82 games been considered.
With the ongoing global pandemic, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Tuesday that the league is exploring a variety of options for the coming season that would see things play out far differently than in past years. Season length, game locations, re-alignment, hub cities, fan attendance and travel restrictions were all pieces of the conversation.
With the advertisers/naming rights holders of arenas threatening to pull the plug, Bettman said that there has been conversation to allow travel and for teams to play out of their own home arenas. However, if that is the case, some serious re-alignment may need to take place. With the Canadian/American border still closed to all non-essential travel, a potential all-Canadian division may be in the works.
“Obviously, we’re not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play,” Bettman said in a panel discussion earlier this week. “As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense.”
Although admitting he would never ask players to return to a ‘bubble situation’ for the entire 2020-21 season, Bettman did note a hybrid system, with some fans in attendance (based on geographical rulings by health authorities) and the rotation of teams through a centralized number of arenas.
“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days,” Bettman added. “You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need. It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we’re talking about.”
Still aiming for a January 1, 2021 start, the NHL is aiming to have the Stanley Cup presented to its victor by July 15 – in time for the television networks to shift focus for the now 2021 Summer Olympic Games (July 23 to August 8). The projected 2020-21 season length is anywhere from 56 to 72 games per team – meaning up to a 32 percent cut in scheduled games.
With heightened travel restrictions, varying quarantine periods and team training sessions yet to be determined, players within each of the league’s 31 teams should soon anticipate receiving a call back to work within the coming 10 days, in order to have the season underway for January 1, 2021. All of this continues to make up the fluid conversation points between Bettman and the 16-member Return-to-Play committee in their regular discussions.