What we know so far about the NHL's return plans

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SECAUCUS, NEW JERSEY - OCTOBER 06: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 National Hockey League Draft at the NHL Network Studio on October 06, 2020 in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
SECAUCUS, NEW JERSEY - OCTOBER 06: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 National Hockey League Draft at the NHL Network Studio on October 06, 2020 in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

There was reason to brace for some real, meaningful news in the hockey world Friday afternoon when the NHL’s assembly of general managers met virtually to discuss a range of topics that included — but was hardly limited to — the upcoming season.

Instead it was silence, which was particularly frustrating for those adhering to a hockey focus when Shams Charania of The Athletic reported in that very same news window that the NBA had laid out concrete targets of a 72-game season, which will begin three days before Christmas and end in time as to not interfere with the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

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Meanwhile, the NHL is still evaluating options with patience and an openness to all possible scenarios. And while that was a sound approach to the successful summer restart, it’s not necessarily tremendous news for hockey fans eager to see the sport return as soon as possible. The main point that has been driven home by whispers over the past few days is that the NHL will sacrifice sections of the season if it means that it can carry out most of it with some semblance of fan presence. In fact, the increased likelihood of having fans in the seats might be what pushes back the start of the regular season. That’s because the light at the end of the tunnel for the NHL, which relies so heavily on gate revenue, is unquestionably fans filling the seats, and it might be worth waiting on if there are increased assurances that teams can sell tickets and concessions.

Beyond that, there were other bits of information to glean from the discussions held between the league and its general managers heading into the weekend — despite the cone of silence they seem to be working under.

New Year’s Day is still the target

There won’t be 40,000 fans at Target Field in Minnesota for the Wild and Blues, but the NHL could still start the season with a New Year’s Day spectacle. While perhaps more unlikely now, the targeted date for the start of the 2020-21 season remains Jan. 1 — despite last week’s official postponement of the Winter Classic.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the league has visions of kick-starting the season “in a unique setting,” and Alberta’s picturesque Lake Louise was reported as a potential option for the league, but it seems that idea has lost some momentum.

Hubs over bubbles

The strategy used to complete this past season is no longer a viable one. However, it’s exceedingly possible that the NHL uses a modified version of the bubble idea, leaning on hub cities and a select few arenas to complete sections of the regular season schedule.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported over the weekend that the use of multiple hub locations is one of the main solutions being worked on currently. The idea would be that teams would shuffle in and out of these semi-secure locations which would allow for some semblance of fan presence. Teams might spend a few weeks at these locations, competing in regular-season games, before returning back to home cities for practice and time spent with family. The same restrictions would not apply to those who lived in the bubbles, instead players would be free to make their own decisions under specific guidelines, which would likely closely resemble those used in the NFL and MLB — two major sports leagues that have started their seasons amid the pandemic.

Basically this would function as a series of road trips without as much travel.

While this seems to be the most viable option for a Jan. 1 start, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Day told Michael Russo of The Athletic that no idea is at the forefront of the league’s plans at the moment.

“I’m being honest when I say that 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 I wouldn’t be able to pick a likely scenario. While we have to make these decisions in a matter of weeks, I couldn’t tell you that we’re leaning any one over any other. It really is going to be a product of a whole bunch of considerations that have yet to materialize.”

All-Canadian division?

This is hardly a new idea, because the regulations on passage between the United States and Canada looks as though it will demand it, but the idea of using hub cities only reinforces the chances of an All-Canadian division being established for the 2020-21 season.

There is a rapid testing pilot project beginning in Alberta, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly stated in his conversation with Russo that it could be “very, very helpful.” However, it seems like merely a step in the right direction, not a solution for the complications at the border. That means the NHL will have to bring total realignment to their four divisions, and fervent Canadian hockey fans will receive at least one unintended benefit amid this pandemic.

Abbreviated season

Even before conversations around strategies for the NHL’s summer restart began in earnest, the league was showing this protectiveness over the 2020-21 season. What the NHL did not want to see was the interrupted season spilling into the following campaign, and thus impacting the integrity and earning potential of a full calendar regular season. Now it seems priorities have changed and that the NHL will accept a shorter season for two key reasons.

As mentioned off the top, reports suggest that the NHL is willing to wait if it means that fans will be part of the equation. But more important than that, Russo reports that the league is looking to wrap up the season by June 30, and before NBC — its broadcasting partner in the United States — shifts its focus to the delayed summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It’s exceedingly possible that the NHL squeezes in a heavily-shortened regular season with as much fan presence as possible as to maximize its offering and avoid interfering with NBC’s marquee asset.

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