Gary Bettman short on specifics ahead of 2020-21 NHL season

EDMONTON — The elephant in the room might as well have been sitting next to the NHL commissioner with a name card and a microphone, as Gary Bettman sat down for his annual State of the Union address with no real answers to the only question that truly matters.

Is the league really going to start next season on Dec. 1 — with training camps opening in mid-November — the way they have modelled the opening of the 2020-21 season? Will there be a season next year at all?

“There is still too much we don’t know,” Bettman admitted. “Anything that anybody suggests, reads, writes or commentates about next season is nothing but speculation.

“December first has always been a notional date. I wouldn’t be surprised if it slips into later December. Could slip into January.”

Truly, how do we know what the state of the Canada/U.S. border will be two-and-half months from now? Who knows if fans will be allowed to attend games, or if different jurisdictions will maintain different rules regarding crowds and gatherings?

Where is COVID-19 going to be on Dec. 1?

All of it left Bettman very noncommittal ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, on a September evening normally reserved for NHL preseason games.

But he did hint that the league will be nimble.

“How we start doesn’t necessarily relate to how we’re going to finish,” Bettman allowed. “This is pure speculation … (but) it’s conceivable that we start without fans, and we move to socially distant fans at some point. And by some point in time maybe our buildings are open.

“There’s full, there’s empty and there’s a combination. How we start doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how we have to finish.”

Bettman pooh-poohed the oft rumoured possibility of an All-Canadian division next season, should border crossings still be troublesome. “If there is an option to consider, believe me, we’re considering it.” He said they would rather finish next season prior to the end of June, while scrapping the entire season and simply waiting for the end of the pandemic does not appear to be an option.

“I anticipate playing a full season next season — 82 games, full playoffs,” he said. “How and when we do that is something that we don’t all have enough information to make any decisions. Anything would be sheer speculation.

“Our goal is to get back to as great a sense of normalcy as possible under whatever circumstances are presented.”

As usual, the NHL commissioner ran through the gamut of questions from reporters, covering all things NHL. Here are a few of the highlights:

• On the stress of pulling off these playoffs:

“Everything keeps me up at night. There are no victory laps,” Bettman said. In every discussion about restarting the NHL, Bettman said, there were people who believed that “how hard we planned and how creative we were, we might not be able to pull this off.

“We had to try.”

• On whether this season’s playoff expansion to 24 teams will remain:

“I’ve never been a fan of expanding the playoffs. When this is all over and I have a chance to really digest and debrief … it will take a fair amount of convincing, to me at least, that we need a change. What we did this year we needed to do to be fair to teams that were on the bubble of making the playoffs. We did the right thing in that regard, but I don’t think that is necessarily a prototype for the future. I still believe that what we have in a normal year is the right way to go.”

• On the fiscal health of the NHL through this pandemic:

“The only good news in this context is that the ownership of the … NHL franchises has never been stronger and healthier. While nobody has revenue coming in right now, and owners are writing checks to cover overhead and expenses, our franchises will get through this.

“Yes, there will be a revenue hit,” said Bettman, who stressed that attendance impacts at least 50 per cent of NHL revenues. “We know (attendance) will be less, I am confident that our franchises will be strong enough to weather this.”

• On media policies and Zoom calls

“We’re not looking to long-term deprive the media of the access that you’ve historically had. When things get back to normal, our media policies and access will get back to normal as well.”

• On scheduling back to back games in the Final:

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly answered this question: “We used the back to back in every round of these playoffs — one of the benefits of bubble hockey is less travel, wear and tear on the players. We felt we wanted to, and we heard from the players on this, move this tournament as quickly as we could, without putting players in danger. That’s how we’ve scheduled. A single back to back … we didn’t think was a hardship for the players.”

• On the chronically troubled Arizona Coyotes:

“The Arizona franchise is under the strongest ownership it’s (ever been) under as long as I can remember,” Bettman said. “I think they’ll be fine.”

Bettman would not say whether the Winter Classic, set for Minnesota on New Year's Day, would be cancelled. He also promised that the pandemic would not alter the 2021-22 start date for the expansion Seattle Kraken.

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