The NHL looks likely to start in mid-January, but the competition could look very different in terms of its structure, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Nothing has been finalized yet, though, and discussions are continuing between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association.
It looks likely, though, that the season schedule will be shorter than usual and that there will be a temporary realignment of the divisions. One division could consist of the seven teams that are based in Canada, for example, and there might only be division games played.
It has also been mooted that games take place in hubs rather than in home arenas, though that has not been decided yet. Bettman has been receiving advice from Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has recommended that the games be played in hubs.
82-game schedule unlikely
“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,” Bettman said, according to NHL.com
It looks likely that the local Covid-19 regulations that are in place across the USA and Canada will play a big part in determining how the league proceeds.
Bettman added: “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.”
Cross-border travel restrictions between Canada and the USA will also affect how things are arranged. News reports have suggested that Columbus, Newark, Las Vegas, Edmonton, Toronto could end up as the cities hosting short-term hubs.
If the Canadian teams do end up in their own division then the remaining 24 US teams will be reorganized on a temporary basis too.
A full season bubble is unlikely
The 2020 NHL post-season was played entirely in a bubble, but Bettman is unsure as to whether that can happen in the new season. He is doubtful that an entire season can be conducted in that way. He has also acknowledged that the biggest challenge facing the league right now is to ensure the safety of all players and support staff while coronavirus still rages across the world.
Back at the end of November, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Columbus Blue Jackets were hit with a rash of positive tests for coronavirus after they opened up their training facilities to players. Avoiding outbreaks of that kind has to be a priority for the league.
The league hierarchy is sure to have to paid close attention to the situation in the NBA, where 48 players tested positive as soon as training camps started. January 13 has been mooted as a possible start date for the NHL, but that might need to be reassessed.