With the NHL’s 56-game season opening on Jan. 13, commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly addressed some key issues facing the league this season — not insignificant was the loss of revenue expected.
“The magnitude of the loss starts with a ‘B’,” Bettman said but was not more specific on whether that could be billion singular or billions plural.
Bettman insisted that owners were unanimous in the decision to play games in spite of the bottom line because the good of the game demanded the league not shut down. The commissioner added that all owners are in position to emerge from the pandemic.
Bettman would not give a specific number of positive cases of COVID-19 that would lead to the postponement of a game but that they will be dealing with each situation as it presents itself. But he did stress that the league’s 213-page document covering protocols for proper behavior by teams isn’t a guide but a document to be followed to the letter and that the league will “vigorously enforce” those protocols.
The commissioner also confirmed the league is planning two outdoor games in Lake Tahoe with the Avalanche and Golden Knights playing on Feb. 20, and the Bruins and Flyers playing on Feb. 21.
More from The Athletic: 2020-21 season previews
NHL Divisions (with new names) for 2020-21 season
The NHL announced on Jan. 5 that the new divisions will be named after league sponsors for just this season. So get used to hearing: Scotia NHL® North Division, Honda NHL® West Division, Discover NHL® Central Division and the MassMutual NHL® East Division
Teams will be traveling to play games against just their divisional opponents. Each team in the East, Central and West divisions will play every other team in its division eight times, while each team in the North Division will play every other team in its division nine or 10 times.
The agreement between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association allows for 23-man rosters with taxi squads of 4-6 players, but players would have to go through waivers to get on and off the taxi squad if they require waivers to go to the minors.
Teams can travel with a maximum of 50 people, and there will be one hotel designated in each city for all visiting teams.
The realigned divisions will be:
• East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
• Central: Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay
• West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas
• North: Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg
Key Dates for NHL season
Regular season begins: Jan. 13
RFA signing deadline: Feb. 11
Contract extensions: March 12 (Deadline to sign a contract extension that begins in the 2021-22 season)
Trade deadline: April 12 (3 p.m. ET)
End of regular season: May 8
Stanley Cup playoffs begin: May 11 (subject to adjustment)
Last possible day of Cup Final: July 9 (subject to adjustment)
Deadline for protection lists for expansion daft: July 17 (5 p.m. ET)
Seattle expansion draft: July 21
NHL Draft: July 23-24
Free-Agent Frenzy: July 28
When will the AHL begin its season?
The AHL Board of Governors announced it would open the season on Feb. 5, but did not have any more details about the schedule or if all teams are playing.
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman thinks a fair number of clubs are still hoping to get a 44 game schedule in, but there is less certainty for the clubs that are independently owned from their NHL affiliates.
On Jan. 4, Charlotte (FLA), Milwaukee (NSH) and Springfield (STL) opted out of the AHL season. The Blues will send their prospects to Utica as a split with the Canucks’ affiliate, the Panthers will send their prospects to Syracuse as a split with the Lightning, and the Predators will send their prospects to Chicago as a split with the Hurricanes.
What happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19?
During the 2020-21 NHL season, the identity of any player who has a confirmed positive COVID-19 test will be announced publicly. That does not apply during training camp, when only total numbers league-wide will be disclosed. Teammates identified as a close contact won’t be required to quarantine as long as they test negative, remain symptom-free and don’t have a fever.
One change from the summer, coaches will now be required to wear face coverings on the bench.
The Stars training camp was shut down after six players and two staff tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the NHL to delay the start of the Dallas season until at least Jan. 19. Daly said on Jan. 11 that they were still “trying to get our arms around how the spread occurred.” He called it a “classic outbreak” and said the team won’t be returning to play until they can ice a competitive team.
Will fans be allowed in arenas?
This will be determined based on the rules of the local governments for each home arena. In a press release, the NHL said, “It is the current plan to play games in the home arenas of participating teams while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans.”
Before they were shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak, the Dallas Stars announced that they would allow fans in the American Airlines Center from the get-go, coming out to around 5,000 capacity. Max capacity at the AAC for hockey games is listed at 18,532 seats, with the number going up to 19,323 if you include standing room. Texas allows for 50 percent capacity at indoor professional sporting events. Arizona and Florida are planning to start the season with a small number of fans (fewer than 5,000) in attendance.
Columbus and Pittsburgh could allow fans in the coming days, Daly said on Jan. 11. But Bettman insisted the small number of fans is less about generating revenue than strengthening the connection between member clubs and their fan bases.
The Nashville Predators were given approval to have 15 percent capacity at their January home games, but the team will not open the season with fans. Tampa Bay is also permitted to have fans but will not at the start.
The NHL also directed clubs to set up seating areas for players’ families in the arenas if permitted by local governments.
Will there be a Winter Classic?
The league postponed the Winter Classic that was scheduled for Jan. 1, 2021, between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues at Target Field. The NHL did not announce a new date, but sources tell The Athletic that the game is expected to be pushed to Jan. 1, 2022.
The Feb. 20, 2021, NHL Stadium Series Game featuring the Carolina Hurricanes at Carter-Finley Stadium was also postponed.
However, sources confirmed to The Athletic that the league is planning two outdoor games in Lake Tahoe with the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights playing on Feb. 20, and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers playing on Feb. 21.
Bettman confirmed that the Sharks, the team in closest proximity to Lake Tahoe, asked about perhaps using the facility for a game of their own but that wasn’t going to be possible.
Can the Canadian teams play at home?
The NHL confirmed it has reached an agreement with the Canadian government to allow teams to play in their own facilities for the 2020-21 season.
“On the basis of our discussions in the past week, as well as our exchange of correspondence over the last 24 hours, we believe we are aligned and in agreement on the conditions on which each of our Canadian franchises can begin play in their own buildings for the start of the 2020-21 NHL season,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on Dec. 24.
The NHL could potentially have had its seven Canadian teams play in the United States if it couldn’t reach an agreement with provincial health authorities, a league source confirmed.
When the full NHL schedule was released Dec. 23 it had the Canadian teams playing in their home arenas but the league has different schedules available in case that was not able to be the case.
What will the 2021 NHL playoffs look like?
It will be a straight divisional playoff format for this season only: 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3, in each division because of the U.S.-Canada border. The NHL likely will want to avoid the border issue as long as possible.
When will the 2021-22 NHL season begin?
The league remains confident that it will return to a normal schedule next fall, which will include the introduction of the NHL’s 32nd team, the Seattle Kraken. What might change, however, is the lead-up to the annual draft — now scheduled for July 23-24 — as many of the developmental leagues are either not operating this season or operating in a severely reduced fashion.
Financial hurdles cleared
The financial stalemate that threatened to derail the shortened 2020-21 season is now dealt with, sources on both sides confirm.
“We are moving forward with the process of working through all of the issues that need to be addressed and agreed to, and that are obviously unique to playing a season during a pandemic,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic.
So now it’s about moving ahead and continuing to plan the season.
“There’s still lots to get done,’’ said one league source Tuesday morning.
Both sides confirm the financial terms from the Memorandum of Understanding, signed in June as part of the CBA extension, will stand as is.
For now, the aim is a Jan. 13 and a 56-game season.
Other remaining questions and details:
• Roster sizes: Obviously the NHL can’t have a season during the pandemic with normal-sized rosters. Sources said Tuesday the NHL has proposed a framework to the NHLPA dealing with rosters but the two sides have yet to iron that out.
• Schedule flexibility: With the NFL in mind, the NHL needs some flexibility and extra days in the schedule in case of COVID-related game postponements. But as one source pointed out Tuesday, the NHL and NHLPA also wanted to maximize the number of games. So you’ve got conflicting objectives that need to be balanced there. But either way, there will be extra days in place in the shortened schedule.
• What about the forgotten seven?: The NHL promised, if possible, that the seven teams who didn’t take part in return to play last summer could have a pre-camp before all 31 teams open camp. At the time, the agreement was for seven days or so ahead of main camp. Now with the time crunch, expect that to be only a couple of extra days although that, too, remains to be finalized with the NHLPA.
• Opt-out option: Will the players, like Return to Play last summer, have an opt-out option if they feel unsafe to play during the ongoing pandemic? It’s still being discussed, sources said Tuesday, but yes it’s expected individual players will be able to opt-out.
• Critical dates: With a Jan. 13 start date in mind, what dates are tentatively penciled in for trade deadline, playoffs, NHL Draft, expansion draft, free agency? Sources on both sides said Tuesday that’s still being discussed.
-Pierre LeBrun (Dec. 8)
(Published Dec. 4)
What hurdles are delaying the start of the 2020-21 NHL season?
You can understand the sense of optimism, the mild euphoria, at reports on Friday that suggested the NHL and its players are inching closer to a plan that would see the season begin as soon as Jan. 15.
It was a welcome relief for hockey fans that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have discussed an outline for a 52 or 56 game schedule — with preference on both sides for 56 games — a Jan. 2 start to training camps, plus an optional earlier camp start for the seven teams that did not return to play this summer.
Except the reality is that even if the league and players resolve the economic issues still outstanding — and that seems likely but not a given — the path from an agreement to puck drop on the regular season remains marked by incredible uncertainty.
Fans may imagine that the NHL has a full plan for the 2020-21 NHL season ready to be unveiled the moment the league formally announces a start date, but the reality is something altogether different.
League officials and the NHLPA are working basically non-stop to make not just one plan but contingency plans on contingency plans on, well, you get the picture.
Remember last summer when for weeks it looked like the NHL’s bold bubble experiment would see teams gathered in Vancouver and Las Vegas? But at the last minute issues with both cities as it related to creating a bubble saw the league pivot to Toronto and Edmonton.
That kind of nimble action is going to be required in the coming weeks on a much grander scale.
Let’s start with this given: The league and the players would like to play as many games as possible to enhance revenue and that means playing as early as is safely and logistically possible. That could be Jan. 15 — and that’s certainly doable, according to league officials. But if it’s Feb. 1 or Feb. 15, the plan will look different.
What happens if teams can’t play in their home cities?
As has been the case for almost a year now, COVID-19 sets the agenda and cases are rising on both sides of the border.
If the NHL and its players are looking at a Jan. 15 start, as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported, which would mean training camps opening roughly two weeks earlier, that would be right after Christmas when there is potential for a post-holiday COVID-19 spike. There is also potential in the coming weeks that local health agencies will modify their regulations vis a vis gatherings or contact sports, which could then in turn impact whether NHL teams could practice and/or play games in their respective markets.
Because the Canadian border is expected to remain closed to all but essential travel, the NHL and NHLPA are planning for a one-time all-Canadian division. Such a ban has been in place for months and there is no indication those regulations will be relaxed anytime soon. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors were rebuffed in attempts to get a dispensation to play games in Toronto and will instead play home games in Tampa.
Further, we know that the NHL is working at redrawing the remaining 24 U.S.-based teams into three groups of eight roughly along geographic lines to cut down on travel costs.
We also know that the local health regulations as they relate to COVID-19 vary from state to state. Sometimes those regulations vary from county to county. That could complicate things even further given there are teams who play and practice in different counties — Pittsburgh is one for instance — and even different states, as is the case with Philadelphia and Washington.
Santa Clara County recently banned contact sports for three weeks, which means the San Jose Sharks can’t continue with informal workouts. The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, who also play in Santa Clara County, have already moved home games to Arizona.
If the ban extended to the end of the calendar year or beyond, the Sharks would not be able to hold training camp or host games at home. NHL officials are planning for this possibility.
They are also planning for the possibility — even the likelihood — that other teams will face similar circumstances.
In general, the expectation is that any team that can’t play at home will play in another NHL building.
So it’s possible the Sharks could end up playing games in Anaheim where the Honda Center isn’t as busy as the Staples Center, where the L.A. Kings play their home games.
But what happens if California prohibited all three California-based teams from playing or practicing?
Again, the NHL is planning for these kinds of possibilities.
Perhaps Arizona or Vegas would be tabbed to take on another tenant if any number of the Sharks, Kings or Ducks needed to find a temporary home.
There is a strong belief at the league level that San Jose will not be alone in facing these issues and they are preparing for teams across the United States to face the prospect of at least temporarily being unable to play in their own buildings.
Will they play in hubs or in their home rinks?
Unlike baseball, which introduced shortened double-headers to allow teams to make up games that had to be postponed, the NHL is hoping to avoid being in a position where a team or multiple teams aren’t able to play games for long stretches. That would be potentially disastrous to scheduling and getting playoffs off in a timely fashion to finish ahead of the scheduled start of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in the third week of July.
If the number of teams that are not allowed to play in their own buildings grows, the league and the players’ association would revisit the idea of playing in some sort of hub system. The pre-planning at the league level has discussed having teams within a division play in a centralized location. The schedule would then have teams play a series of games against each other and then some teams would return home to rest and practice while other teams come into what would be a kind of malleable bubble.
That’s not the preferred plan but it’s possible circumstances could dictate otherwise even for a portion of the schedule.
Ideally, whenever the season begins, each of the 31 teams will begin playing in their own marketplace.
What will the travel schedule and testing protocols look like?
The league is looking at having some sort of buffer in the schedule between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs in mid-May to make up games that might have to be postponed. The expectation is that will happen. Unlike the bubble situation in Toronto and Edmonton where there were no positive COVID-19 tests, league officials acknowledged it would be highly unlikely for the NHL to not face issues like baseball and the NFL with positive tests forcing games to be delayed.
One factor the league hopes will minimize these disruptions is that the NHL schedule will feature a baseball-style grouping of games where teams will play multiple games in one market over a short period of time.
The NHL is expected to advise teams which hotels visiting teams will be required to stay at so there is uniformity in protocols for cleaning, access to the rink, etc. Baseball adopted a similar plan as their season went along and coronavirus cases dropped significantly after the first part of the baseball season was marred by positive tests among traveling teams.
It’s expected that the NBA, set to resume its schedule later this month, will follow a similar pattern with teams staying in the same hotels in road cities.
How long would it take to start a season? How long would training camp be?
Currently, the plan is for NHL teams to be responsible for establishing and paying for COVID-19 testing in their own facilities.
However, if more than one NHL team ends up setting up shop in one market for a length of time, the league is expected to step in and help with those protocols. If a bubble system of any sort becomes a reality, the league would oversee testing in those scenarios.
The timing of things like training camp is also a bit fluid pending when the league ends up targeting a start date.
One GM said they could get ready to play meaningful games in 10 to 14 days, and he would be in favor of eliminating any preseason contests in an effort to get as many regular-season games as possible in the books.
Another GM indicated that ideally they would have 14 days of camp, which would allow for 10 to 11 days on the ice and account for a couple of days off. He would like to see a couple of preseason games set up by the league before the regular season starts. The seven teams that didn’t qualify for the return to play competition have also been promised extra time on the ice, although how that would fit into the schedule — if at all — will be determined by when the league sets its start date.
Settling on a start date for training camp has to factor in travel time for all players, including the many who remain in Europe, to return to their home markets and go through whatever quarantine protocols local health officials require.
Beyond that, all 31 NHL teams will need to get back up to speed with their own staff. Many NHL teams laid off or furloughed many of their workers during the pandemic so teams will have to attend to restaffing to ensure they are ready for training camps and the return of players — and in some cases a small number of fans — to buildings.
How much would outdoor games cost and how likely is it?
Some teams have explored the idea of playing multiple games outdoors to help generate badly needed revenue. Being outdoors would provide a safer environment for fans vis a vis the spread of the virus and the NFL has in many markets been able to allow varying numbers of fans into stadiums based on local health regulations.
As LeBrun reported, teams who have expressed an interest in this outdoor possibility include Los Angeles (later in the season), Boston, Carolina, Nashville, Florida and Dallas.
The idea of teams playing multiple games outdoors is appealing to many. But as one NHL governor noted, they’re hard work and that’s just for one-off events like a Winter Classic or Heritage Classic or other NHL outdoor events.
What would be involved in holding a series of games outdoors as many of these teams are considering?
One thing is a given, it will be expensive.
It would cost more than $1 million to set up and operate a semi-permanent ice rink, which is what would be required to host multiple games over a longer period of time than the usual outdoor games put on by the NHL. Let’s say teams were looking at playing games over a six-to-eight week period. There is a two-week setup time and another week or so to dismantle. If there is natural turf that needs to be replaced, that would add to the cost.
There is also the board and glass structure — you can’t just buy that at Home Depot — and broadcast facilities to be considered in pricing the endeavor.
There could also be additional costs from weather extremes like snow, heavy wind and rain.
Perhaps it’s workable if teams like Anaheim and Los Angeles were able to share the cost of playing multiple games outdoors. But it seems the idea of outdoor games to kick off an unusual season may be attractive, it would be very difficult to put into practice.
(Photo: Jonathan Kozub / NHLI via Getty Images))
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