What we know so far about the NHL's return plans
SECAUCUS, NEW JERSEY - OCTOBER 6: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 National Hockey League Draft at the NHL Network Studio on October 6, 2020 in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe / Getty Images)
There was reason to prepare for some real, meaningful news in the ice hockey world on Friday afternoon when the NHL General Assembly virtually met to discuss a range of topics that included, but were hardly limited to, the coming season.
Instead, it was silence, which was especially frustrating for those sticking to a hockey focus when The Athletic's Shams Charania reported in the same news window that the NBA had set specific goals for a 72-game season starting three days earlier will be Christmas and the end of time so as not to affect the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
In the meantime, the NHL is examining the options with patience and openness to all possible scenarios. And while this was a solid approach to a successful summer restart, if the sport is to return as soon as possible, it's not necessarily great news for ice hockey fans. The main point that has been driven home by whispers for the past few days is that the NHL will sacrifice parts of the season if that means they can do most of it with a semblance of fan presence. In fact, the increased likelihood of having fans in the seats could push back the start of the regular season. That's because the lights at the end of the tunnel for the NHL, which relies so heavily on gate revenue, are undoubtedly fans who fill the seats and it might be worth waiting for if there are more assurances that teams can sell tickets and concessions.
In addition, there was more information from the discussions between the league and its general managers over the weekend - despite the cone of silence they appear to be working under.
New year is still the goal
There won't be 40,000 game and blues fans at Target Field in Minnesota, but the NHL could still kick off the season with a New Year's spectacle. Although this may now be less likely, the scheduled date for the start of the 2020-21 season remains January 1 - despite the official postponement of the Winter Classic last week.
TSN's Frank Seravalli reports that the league has visions of starting the season "in a unique setting" and Alberta's scenic Lake Louise has been reported as a possible option for the league, but it seems that the idea has lost some of its momentum.
Hubs over blisters
The strategy that ended last season is no longer viable. However, it is extremely likely that the NHL is using a modified version of the Bubble idea, drawing on hub cities and a few select arenas to complete sections of the regular season schedule.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported over the weekend that using multiple hub locations is one of the main solutions they are currently working on. The idea would be that teams would mix in and out of these semi-safe places, which would allow for a semblance of fan presence. Teams may spend a few weeks in these locations playing regular season games before returning to their hometowns for practice and family time. The same restrictions wouldn't apply to those who lived in the bubbles, instead players could make their own decisions following certain guidelines that would likely be very similar to those in the NFL and MLB - two major sports leagues that started their season in the middle of the Pandemic.
Basically, this would work as a series of road trips without that much driving.
While this seems like the best option to launch on Jan. 1, NHL Vice Commissioner Bill Day told The Athletic's Michael Russo that no idea is currently at the forefront of the league's plans.
"I'm being honest when I say there is no likely scenario. In other words, I couldn't pick one. I could identify 10 to 12 scenarios for you right now and not pick a likely scenario. Though we have to make those decisions in a few weeks "I can't tell you that we're leaning on each other. It will really be the product of a whole series of considerations that have not yet been implemented."
This is hardly a new idea as the regulations for the transition between the United States and Canada look like they require it, but the idea of using hub cities only increases the chances of one purely in 2020-21 Canadian division is set up season.
A rapid test pilot is starting in Alberta and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Russo that it could be "very, very helpful". However, it seems like just a step in the right direction, not a solution to the borderline complications. That means the NHL will have to completely realign its four divisions, and avid Canadian ice hockey fans will receive at least one unintended benefit in this pandemic.
Even before talks about strategies for the NHL's summer restart began in earnest, the league showed this protective effect in the 2020-21 season. What the NHL did not want to see was the interrupted season that spilled over into the following campaign, thus undermining the integrity and earning potential of a regular season with a full calendar. Now the priorities seem to have changed and the NHL will accept a shorter season for two main reasons.
As noted above, reports suggest the NHL is ready to wait if that means fans will be part of the equation. More importantly, though, Russo reports that the league plans to finish the season by June 30, before NBC - its broadcast partner in the US - shifts its focus to the late Tokyo Summer Olympics.
It is highly likely that the NHL will come under pressure in a severely curtailed regular season with as much fan attendance as possible to maximize its offerings and avoid detracting from NBC's marquee assets.
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