The NHL’s hub-city playoff format this summer has made hockey’s return to play a resounding success so far this summer, and while there’s still plenty of bubble hockey left to be played, next season is already front-of-mind for many.
That the NHL’s 2019-20 playoffs continue to be played out safely will go a long way in determining when next season can begin — and what it might look like.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen in a Q&A published Tuesday that although the hub-city format has so far worked well for the league’s expanded playoff format, attempting to put together a similar setup for the regular season isn’t something that’s necessarily on the table.
“I don’t want to rule out anything because I think there are so many alternatives and possibilities and ways this might play out,” he explained. “I can’t tell you we’ve thought necessarily about a divisional bubble. I don’t think our current format for bubbles would work for the regular season, particularly because our objective is to play a full season and I’m not sure how we do that in the format we’re currently utilizing. It’s already a significant amount of time just to complete our playoffs in that type of bubble format. I don’t think it’s going to look like what we’re currently doing, but could it be a variation of what we’re currently doing. I wouldn’t rule that out any more than I would rule out any number of other alternatives.”
In the NHL and NHLPA’s Memorandum of Understanding released earlier this summer, Dec. 1 was the date circled on hockey calendars as the tentative season-opener for the 2020-21 campaign. Flexibility will be key going forward — particularly when it comes to dropping the puck on the upcoming season, and with regards to whether fans will be in attendance.
“We would love to be in a position where we could open on Dec. 1 to full buildings in every one of our markets. That may or may not be possible and we don’t control that, so you have to adjust to that reality,” said Daly. “That adjustment could take a variety of forms. It could be pushing back the start of the season until that might be possible, or it might be opening to partial buildings in either all the markets or a portion of the markets. We recognize there’s not a lot of certainty with respect to what this looks like yet, and there may not be for some period of time. We’re going to have to remain flexible and we’re going to have to make the best decisions we can at the time we have to make them.”
Having a later start date, in addition to accommodating enough of an off-season for all clubs, allows the NHL to keep a close eye what other fall leagues are doing and learn from them.
“We also have the benefit of being able to observe what happens over the next several weeks and months with respect to the fall sports and college sports and European leagues, how everything kind of shakes out around the world, really, in terms of live sporting events and how they’re conducted,” he said. “We want to inform ourselves to the greatest extent possible before making definitive judgments and decisions on things that don’t need to be decided today. We’ll use all those information points, all those data points to make those decisions at an appropriate time.”
The ability to be flexible will apply to the league’s usual marquee events like the annual Winter Classic, typically held Jan. 1, as well as other outdoor games, and All-Star weekend. Those decisions, said Daly, are “part and parcel” with the many other decisions that need to be made with regards to the regular season overall and will come when the league has a better idea of what that looks like.
“For better or for worse, that’s not today’s decision,” he said.
For now, one of the most pressing questions facing the league is centred around families being able to join players in the Edmonton bubble once the four remaining teams centralize in the west for the conference finals — a tentative agreement made earlier this summer between the NHL and NHLPA to allow players to reunite with their loved ones while still playing.
“We put together a protocol document for what families in the bubble would look like and what procedures would be employed to integrate them into the bubble, the timing of all that, precautions and testing and the like,” he explained.
Daly said the league has issued a survey to all remaining clubs, and will speak with provincial and federal health authorities to determine if and how they can move forward with bringing families into the Edmonton bubble.
“We intend to have a conversation both with Alberta Health Services and the Public Health Agency of Canada likely this week to see whether family integration can be accommodated,” said Daly. “So I don’t have a certain answer at this point, but we hope that our track record so far of conducting a safe bubble would generate some comfort and enthusiasm about us allowing families to enter the bubble.”