The NHL's bubble setup, a multi-month project which spanned two cities and shielded the league's players from the COVID-19 pandemic long enough to crown a Stanley Cup champion, was a resounding and sustained success.
But next season is on the horizon, the novel coronavirus pandemic is still a destabilizing force across North America and plans have to be considered for how to produce the NHL's next safe setup -- this time with more teams, more games and, hopefully, eventually fans in attendance.
"The number one thing I'm hearing from the NHL is the reason this worked with the return to play is because they waited," Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman said during the Saturday Headlines segment of Hockey Night In Canada. "And they are not going to rush into anything, they are not going to feel pressure to announce anything until they're absolutely certain of what's the best-case scenario for them."
The NHL and NHLPA had tentatively agreed to aim for a Dec. 1 start to the 2020-21 campaign. However, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently he wouldn’t be surprised if the start of next season was pushed back later into December or even into January -- with the main reason for the delay being to determine if some fans could safely attend games, as the league and its franchises rely on ticket sales as a key source of revenue.
Beyond scheduling and fan attendance, the return-to-play variables to consider are wide-ranging, too -- including how border crossings would work, what quarantine periods would look like and protocols to have in place for if a player were to test positive.
To that end, Friedman noted, the players are forming a committee which will be finalized this week, and begin engaging with the league on discussions for next steps the following week.
As those specific steps are being hammered out, one option that won't be considered is replicating the bubble design.
"The NBA bubble was $170 million, they estimated," Friedman said. "The NHL bubbles are going to come in somewhere between $75-$90 million. And that's kind of the reason we're not going to see bubbles again -- it was tough on everybody, and they got through their financial commitments that were necessary, but it's not something that we're going to see."