NHL season start remains targeted for Jan. 1, may take different form

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The NHL still aims to play a full 82-game schedule in 2020-21 that would begin around Jan. 1, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Friday that might not be possible due to continuing uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and Daly briefed the NHL general managers on a variety of topics during a video conference Friday, but the main item on the agenda was the upcoming season and what it might look like.

“The goal is still to start as early as Jan. 1 and to play a full season,” Daly said. “Having said that, we also recognize, depending on a host of different things, that it could take a different form and we might not be playing a full season, we might not be playing into the summer, we might not be starting on Jan. 1. So there’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

It was the first formal meeting for the general managers since March 2-4 in Boca Raton, Florida, though the NHL held regular video meetings regarding its Return to Play plans after the 2019-20 season was paused March 12.

Although a recent spike in COVID-19 cases across North America could affect this season, Commissioner Bettman and Daly stressed to the GMs the need to take the time necessary to make decisions about how and when the season will be played.

“We told them we’re evaluating all possibilities and that we’re gathering a lot of information and data points and we don’t need to make any decisions right away, that we should wait and inform ourselves as best as possible and make the best decisions we can when we need to make them,” Daly said. “There really wasn’t anything spoken about specifically with respect to variations we’re considering, but obviously they’re multiple and probably somewhat numerous and depend on a whole host of things. So that was basically the message to the GMs.”

The NHL will continue to monitor advances in the science surrounding the coronavirus and evolving governmental guidelines concerning travel restrictions within and between the United States and Canada, and regulations on public gatherings.

For example, Canada and the province of Alberta plan to launch a pilot program for rapid COVID-19 testing at Calgary International Airport on Nov. 2 that could lead to a reduction of the mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering the country to about 48 hours.

“Obviously we’re hopeful that they have some success in terms of piloting that program,” Daly said. “It certainly could change the landscape as it relates to us and other professional sports.”

Among the other items on the agenda was a reevaluation of the NHL Draft Lottery. The current format, which gives each of the 15 teams that do not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs a chance at one of the top three picks, was reviewed, and the GMs were asked to submit suggestions for changes.

“We heard on the call from a number of GMs saying they think it needs to be tweaked,” Daly said. “It certainly wasn’t a majority, it wasn’t a large number, but we invited feedback and we’re always receptive and responsive to what the clubs think is the right answer at the end of the day.”

Additional topics included:

— An update on discussions with the NHL Players’ Association for the seven teams that did not participate in the 24-team Return to Play to have an extended training camp before the start of this season.

“There is kind of an agreement that the seven teams that did not participate in Return to Play should get some extra time in training camp,” Daly said. “None of the details are nailed down, but we certainly talked through what we talked about with the Players’ Association and what the open issues were.”

— A discussion about the possible reintroduction of the player interview period before the start of free agency. The interview period was dropped as part of the extension of the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement that was ratified July 10.

— A review of how developmental leagues in North America and professional leagues in Europe, some of which are already playing their seasons, are adjusting to the coronavirus and how their plans might evolve.

The American Hockey League plans to start its season Dec. 4 but has yet to announce a schedule. The ECHL is planning a split start with some teams beginning play Dec. 11 and the rest Jan. 15. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has started its season, but the Ontario Hockey League (tentative start date of Dec. 1) and the Western Hockey League (planned start of Jan. 8) have not.

— An update on the Seattle Kraken, the NHL expansion team that remains on target to begin play in 2021-22.

“Everything is full speed ahead on Seattle expansion,” Daly said.

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