During a panel discussion conducted Wednesday via video conference as part of the World Hockey Forum in Moscow, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shed some light on the many factors being examined as the league continues to piece together the puzzle of its upcoming season.
"We are focused on starting at some point hopefully in mid-January," Bettman said, according to NHL.com. "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."
Jan. 13 is the date that's currently being reported.
While the number of games the 2020-21 season will include remains up in the air, so too does the location of many of those matchups.
"Right now, we're focused on whether or not we're going to play in our buildings and do some limited traveling or play in a bubble, and that's something we're working on and getting medical advice on," Bettman said.
He indicated that he does not believe a full-season bubble (similar to what we saw in Toronto and Edmonton for the league's return-to-play this past summer) is a realistic possibility — "We don't think we can conduct an entire regular season that way," Bettman said.
"But circumstances, depending on where COVID[-19] is spiking and where the medical system is being taxed at any given time, may require us to adjust."
Bettman later added: "We didn't think we could put the players in a bubble for six months ... That just wasn't practical."
Considering the need to limit travel, Bettman also acknowledged that a temporary realignment of the NHL's four divisions — including an all-Canadian group north of the still-restricted border — could be a reality, with teams only playing within their divisions throughout the regular season.
"We may have to, only for the regular season, have the Canadian teams play each other in Canada in one or more cities and then we have to realign the remaining 24 teams in the United States," he explained.
"One of the things that we're doing for the regular season, as we're planning it, is we're going to just play within our divisions, so we're not going to play every team against everybody else in the course of a season."
Setting up smaller hubs could also be possible. Even with realignment, it appears likely that some teams will need to be temporarily relocated to accommodate government-mandated protocols.
"So, for example, we have a couple of clubs that can't hold training camp or conduct games even without fans in their current buildings and facilities, and we're going to have to move them somewhere else to play," Bettman explained. We've seen that in the NFL, with the San Francisco 49ers hosting a recent home game in Arizona and, on an even larger scale, the NBA's Toronto Raptors having to move into Tampa Bay's Amalie Arena for the season due to federal border restrictions not being lifted.
"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," he said. "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."
Should there be some sort of multiple-hub setup established by the NHL, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman suggested Wednesday five cities under consideration:
Potential hubs could be Columbus, Newark, Vegas and Edmonton/Toronto. But, as Bettman indicated, not permanent bubbles as we saw last summer
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) December 16, 2020
Nothing has yet been finalized by the NHL and NHLPA.
"The biggest challenge is making sure that our players and supporting personnel are safe and healthy and making sure that we're not doing anything that puts the communities in which we're playing at risk either in terms of spreading COVID[-19] or taking medical resources, whether it's testing or vaccinations," Bettman said.