NHL hopes to start season in mid-January, could play in hubs, arenas

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The 2020-21 NHL season could start in mid-January and include a shortened schedule, temporary realignment with a division made up of the seven teams based in Canada, division games only, and games in home arenas, hubs or a combination, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday.

Nothing has been finalized as the NHL and NHL Players’ Association continue to discuss a number of issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are focused on starting at some point hopefully in mid-January,” Commissioner Bettman said via video conference in a panel discussion on “Holding Domestic and International Competitions in the Modern Conditions of a Pandemic” at the World Hockey Forum in Moscow.

“… It is clear that we will not be playing an 82-game schedule for the regular season, which we normally do, but we’re going to try and play as many games as possible.”

The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to adjust to government regulations at all levels, from restrictions at the Canada-United States border to restrictions on gatherings in different jurisdictions, and the coronavirus situation in each market. 

“Right now, we’re focused on whether or not we’re going to play in our buildings and do some limited traveling or play in a bubble, and that’s something we’re working on and getting medical advice on,” Commissioner Bettman said.

Commissioner Bettman said the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars carried a “huge burden” when they spent more than two months isolated from family and friends in the 2020 postseason, a 24-team tournament in Toronto and Edmonton. Teams entered the bubble July 26. The Lightning defeated the Stars in the Stanley Cup Final on Sept. 28.

“We don’t think we can conduct an entire regular season that way,” Commissioner Bettman said. “But circumstances, depending on where COVID[-19] is spiking and where the medical system is being taxed at any given time, may require us to adjust.

“So, for example, we have a couple of clubs that can’t hold training camp or conduct games even without fans in their current buildings and facilities, and we’re going to have to move them somewhere else to play.

“If enough teams can’t play, again, without fans, in their own facilities, then we may have to move more and more towards a hub. It may be that some teams are playing in other buildings. It may be that a whole group of teams have to play in other buildings.

“One of the things that we’re doing for the regular season, as we’re planning it, is we’re going to just play within our divisions, so we’re not going to play every team against everybody else in the course of a season.”

Commissioner Bettman said the NHL might have to realign temporarily because of the restrictions at the Canada-United States border.

“We may have to, only for the regular season, have the Canadian teams play each other in Canada in one or more cities and then we have to realign the remaining 24 teams in the United States,” Commissioner Bettman said.

If teams play in their own buildings, the NHL wants to limit travel as much as possible and use the same hotels and restaurants.

“Doing that will not be as risk-averse as being in a bubble or a hub, but for an entire regular season, even if it’s abbreviated, we didn’t think we could put the players in a bubble for six months,” Commissioner Bettman said. “That just wasn’t practical.”

The NBA started its preseason Dec. 11 and will start its regular season Dec. 22, with the end of its regular season tentatively set for May 16. The first half of its schedule has been announced; the second half will be announced during the latter part of the first half. Each team will play 72 games, 10 games fewer than usual, with three games against each intraconference opponent and two against each interconference opponent. 

“Some of our challenges, again, with seven teams in Canada and having to realign, are a little more difficult than the NBA’s, and we’re watching very closely what their experience is,” Commissioner Bettman said.

“And they are attempting to play in their teams’ buildings, although interestingly enough with one team in Canada, the Toronto Raptors, that team had to move to Tampa to play its games, because, again, you can’t get in and out of Canada, if you can get in at all, without quarantining, and you can’t play a schedule of games in close proximity if you have to quarantine every time you’re crossing the border.”

Asked for the biggest challenge facing the NHL, Commissioner Bettman said, “The biggest challenge is making sure that our players and supporting personnel are safe and healthy and making sure that we’re not doing anything that puts the communities in which we’re playing at risk either in terms of spreading COVID[-19] or taking medical resources, whether it’s testing or vaccinations.

“We understand what is vitally important to each community and to the health and welfare of each community, and we don’t want to do anything that would interfere with that. But everything that we’re doing and working on with the Players’ Association starts with keeping the players and the communities in which we play safe and healthy.”

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