While the majority of the focus regarding the NHL’s resumption of play in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has been on finishing off the suspended 2019-20 season, commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed Thursday that next season may also be impacted by the league’s hiatus.
Speaking with the NHL Network by phone, Bettman said the league isn’t unopposed to delaying the start of next season, if need be.
“We have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when we can start,” Bettman said. “There’s no magic for next season of starting in October as we traditionally do. If we have to start in November or December, that’s something that will be under consideration.
“We’re going to try and make good, prudent, careful judgments. This isn’t a race to be first back. When we come back, we want it to be at the right time, for the right reasons, under the right circumstances.”
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman noted the possibility of a delayed 2020-21 campaign in his ‘31 Thoughts’ column Wednesday, pointing to the reluctance to play more fan-less games next season.
“A December start for the 2020–21 season is a real possibility, both in the NHL and NBA,” Friedman wrote. “The leagues realize that games with fans this summer are not happening. No one likes that, but everyone recognizes it’s a necessity. Next year? I think there’ll be much more pushback to fan-less games.
“Carolina owner Tom Dundon went public with his dislike, and he’s not alone. One exec, who shares a building with an NBA team, says he wouldn’t be surprised if that league starts on Christmas Day, with the NHL a couple of weeks earlier.”
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston joined Tim & Sid recently to break down what a delayed start would look like for the league as well, noting he’s heard two dates mentioned among team personnel over the past week.
“Some think it could be Dec. 15, give or take, for the start of next season for the League, some think immediately after Christmas — Dec. 27 [or] 28,” Johnston said.
With the Olympics looming large on the schedule next summer, and there being potential overlaps in terms of the American TV partnerships, that means 2020-21 could also be a shortened season given the need to conclude before the Olympics begin.
“That timeframe, I think, is probably too condensed — even if you get rid of the All-Star break and the bye weeks and other things — to stage 82 games,” Johnston said. “Someone told me they could see it being 70 games, that kind of scenario, if we’re looking at a late-December start-up.”
No decisions have been made on when a potential return will take place, though, or what that return could look like. Commissioner Bettman said Thursday that he’s pleased with how discussions have gone between those involved in the Return To Play Committee, noting he’s been in contact with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr on a near-daily basis.
“Having the committee that’s been put together with the players is important so that we can get the feedback on the issues that are important to them and how to resolve them, and that we can be communicating how we’re focusing on the things we think that need to be done,” Bettman said. “It’s been extraordinarily collaborative, constructive and cooperative, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the interaction that we’re having.”
The next step in resuming play will be re-opening training facilities, Bettman said, as the League is intent on giving players the chance to return to game shape before being asked to start the season, or post-season, up again.
“We’d like our guys to be able to work themselves back into shape. But this is something we’re going to continue to evaluate on a day-to-day basis,” Bettman told the NHL Network. “Our health concerns for the players really fit into two categories: One is obviously COVID-19, and two, whatever we’re going to do, we don’t want them playing games until they’re back in game shape.
“So we’re going to continue to monitor things, and when the guidance from the medical people is right and the governmental authorities are comfortable, then we’ll take step one, which is reopening our training facilities.”