But on Tuesday, league commissioner Gary Bettman offered some insight into how the NHL might operate safely amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During a virtual panel at the Paley International Council Summit, Bettman said, per NHL.com’s Nicholas Cotsonika, the league hasn’t ruled out having teams play in their own arenas — with or without fans depending on local circumstances — but is also exploring the possibility of short-term hubs, with teams subbing in and out for action over the course of 10 to 12 days, or some sort of “hybrid system.”
“You’ll play a bunch of games without travelling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” said Bettman.
“It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we’re talking about.”
An obvious impediment to the NHL’s plans, whatever they may be, will be the closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel, not to mention restrictions across state lines. But the solution may be in the temporary realignment of teams based on proximity.
“Obviously, we’re not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play,” said Bettman. “And while crossing the U.S.-Canadian border is an issue, we’re also seeing within the United States limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states. It’s again part of having to be flexible. …
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense.
“It may be that we’re better off, particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues.”
Bettman previously said the league is targeting a Jan. 1 puck drop for the upcoming season. The NBA, which is slated to begin a week earlier, is running a 72-game campaign.
One thing that is for certain, though, is that there will be no repeat of the bubbles that the NHL used over the summer in Edmonton and Toronto to complete the 2019-20 season.
As Bettman emphasized, all these changes are “temporary” and the hope is for a return to normalcy for the 2021-22 season.
“And while we’re in the middle of working on our return to play as well, which I hope to have put to bed soon, our goal is to get back to a normal schedule starting (next) fall and being done before July on a longer-term basis. That is the goal.”