Ever since the NHL awarded the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning on September 28th, we had the NHL Draft and the start of NHL free agency. Since then, the hockey news cycle has been extremely quite, as we still await word on when the 2020-21 NHL Season will begin.
The NBA has already set a start date for their 2020-21 season, as they will get underway on December 22nd, which would be roughly just over two-months after they finished their own playoff bubble. That should make us wonder, what is taking the National Hockey League so long to make a decision about their season?
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (pictured above) did say in a statement that he would never again ask the players to go into a bubble type format for an entire season. Bettman, like all of us, understood the mental toll the bubble took on the players this summer. However, the league and the players also understood that a bubble format was the only feasible way to finish the season and award a champion for the 2019-20 season. Which the league finished flawlessly. Zero positive tests from any player, coach, staff members of both teams and other NHL personnel; including on ice officials.
Now the difficult part. Trying to get a plan established for when and how the league will start. There have been numerous unconfirmed rumors of the season starting potentially in February and other unconfirmed rumors of owners saying the league would be better off financially to not at all play the 2020-21 season and try again with a full October-June season for 2021-22. The league had to work extremely hard to win back their fans after the league cancelled the entire 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute, again in 2013 when there was another lockout. Only difference was, that a season eventually was played which did save a little bit of face. Obviously this cancellation wouldn't be because of that, but because of what feels like a never ending pubic health crisis. A cancellation, is something that the commissioner doesn't feel would be right for the league.
As of November 14th,, the NHL is considering numerous models to complete the season. Both Gary Bettman and Deputy-Commissioner Bill Daly have said that the way they start will to not nessararily be the way they finish the season. Right now, the league is considering a combination of hub cities and teams home arenas. What does this mean? Well, the league would have teams play in a designated locations for two weeks at a time in a rotation type format. After the two weeks are up, teams would return home for a week. The players would be able to be with their families and also practice in their own facility before returning to a hub city for another two weeks. The hope for the league is at some point that they would be able to eliminate the hub cities and teams can play games in their own arenas with or without fan attendance. Something the players prefer, rather than playing at a neutral site for long period of time.
Daly said in a statement: "We have to build in flexibility for the hiccups that we expect will come along and have to expect will come with potential COVID positives and contact tracing requirements. Some of the difficulties that (Major League) Baseball went through and some the of the difficulties that the NFL is currently dealing with, how we address those situations I the context of our own schedule? Those are all things we're working on and those are all the things that keep us all up at night as we try to figure this out."
Daly also mentioned the league remains intent o starting the season on January 1st, with mandatory training camps for two-weeks in mid-December. However, the teams that did not part take in the bubble playoffs like the Sharks, Kings, Ducks, Redwings, Sabres, Senators and Devils, will be granted to start a week before, given the fact that they haven't played a game since March.
Daly again reiterated that some teams would prefer to play in their own arenas whether they are able to host fans or not, as they do not want to play in another hub city like teams did for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There is a lot of uncertainty about how the season will start. Hub cities, or not. A temporary divisional realignment is currently in the works as the US-Canadian border remains closed, and with the NHL having seven Canadian based teams, it is impossible uproot those teams to the US is not practical or plausible. Baseball and Basketball can get away with it because both leagues only have one team that plays north of the border.
The NHL and NHLPA have remained in constant contact to put together a plan to get the new season underway, then begin the planning process for the 2021-2022 season. Now, granted, that shouldn't take too long given the fact the COVID shouldn't be an issue at that point, the borders should be open. The only things that would need to be figured out is dates for the Expansion and NHL Drafts, free agency, and the start of training camps and pre-season, and then regular season. That will not involve anything to do with hub cities, or divisional realignments. So we hope; but more likely than not we won't see any hub city locations for 2021-22 and beyond.
Will the NHL start on January first? That's the target date for the league but who knows that this point. Will the league play the season? That seems like an extreme guarantee as both sides seem eager to host some type of season. Again, the league could start one way but finish another way. However, it would be a tight deadline as the league would like to finish prior to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics but Daly did say if they need to, they will play into the Olympic period. Not the wisest idea given the NBC's contractual rights to the Olympics, but they also have contractual rights for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That's something that both NBC and the NHL have to figure out.
First things first, let's start the season and go from there. Plans can change, and the NHL has done an extremely great job at taking their time, but the clock is ticking to come up with some type of plan.
Plus it would be nice if the Bruins could provide us with some news regarding the roster, whether resigning a certain veteran presence that has been on the team and that has dawned the lustrous "C" each of the last 14 years, or sign a good free agent that will help the team win the Stanley Cup in 2021? That would be great.
How many games will played? Where will they be played? So many questions that we still do not have the answers to. Hopefully we will have those answers soon and as fans, when we can go back to the TD Garden and cheer on the Bruins.