At some indistinguishable point over the past however-many years, I became “an old,” which I only acknowledge now because I need to make an Inspector Gadget reference. Here goes: Inspector Gadget used to be given his “missions” on notes that would self-destruct in a matter of seconds, which is essentially what you’re reading here: an article on what hockey will look like when it returns … that’s almost certain to self-destruct in days (or less) as the NHL’s board of governors are meeting today and new decisions are rolling in by the hour.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to start picturing the eventual shape of the coming 2020-21 NHL season, so let’s try to get things in better focus with the information we’ve gathered this week:
When will the NHL be back?
This one seems least likely to self-destruct in a comically bad way, given that the estimates here seem pretty consistent wherever you look. It sounds like the league is pushing to return on Jan. 1, which means at worst (barring some dramatic event) we’re starting by Jan. 10. I say that date, by the way, because if players insist they need Christmas at home with their families, I could see them coming back Boxing Day and having a two-week camp after that.
If Christmas is not an issue – and since the NBA has deemed it a non-issue, I’d imagine the NHL could do the same – then Jan. 1 seems perfectly viable.
So when would training camps start?
Here’s where fans can start to get a little excited, because if you start Jan. 1, you’re probably bringing teams back by about Dec. 15, which you may note is only a month away.
Further to that, the seven teams who didn’t get to come back and play after the season pause this past summer (as a result of being what experts call being “not good”) may be granted an extra week to prepare. That means some NHL players could be reporting to actual camps as early as the second week of December. And that’s exciting, because then you’d be looking at less than a month.
It’s worth noting too that a quick return to action here would start to put pressure on teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, who have considerable roster decisions to make in the days in between. If you’re someone who enjoys hockey action, this might push more into your timeline in the weeks to come.
But will they play in hubs or no?
There’s a lot of incentive for them to not play in hubs. Teams have arena-naming rights that require a certain number of events per year. Teams want fans; they want the comforts of home; and they want normalcy. (There’s another reason I’ll note a little further down.)
But it sure looks like there’s going to have to be hubs at first, at least for a little while.
COVID cases are on the rise pretty much everywhere in North America, and the last thing the league needs is to have swaths of cancelled games while certain players (or teams) go into isolation, which would push the season back, leaning up against their “done by the Olympics” deadline of around July 15. It’s the safest way to start hockey up again, of course, but it’s also the most reliable way to complete the “full” season.
My loose understanding of what’s being assembled is a handful of hubs that will look quite a bit different from the versions we saw during the 2019-20 playoffs. They won’t be permanent, and they’ll see teams come for 10 to 12 days and play a half-dozen games or so, then head back to be with their families. One of the issues right now that the players and league seem to be talking about is that hubs take a little while to get set up (so Jan. 1 would be a hard date to hit), but the NHLPA wants to get going as soon as possible.
But the short answer here is yes, I think there will be hubs to start the season.
Where will those be?
I don’t think the league even knows the answers here yet, but I’d imagine the decisions will come down to some mix of areas with low COVID numbers, and states with the most lenient restrictions.
Will there be fans?
I think there will be, yes, hence the “lenient restrictions” part. I doubt there would be many at first. Some of the fan protocols that will be adhered to when the NBA returns on Dec. 22 came out the other day, and they’re about what you’d expect. Fans will need to have been tested a couple days prior to the game, or day-of (with a rapid-results test). They’ll need to distance and wear masks. The buildings won’t be full. There may even be plexiglass between the players and fans (which hey, the NHL has a head start on that front).
But if the NBA is going to have fans back in their buildings on Dec. 22, even just a few, I can’t imagine the NHL going entirely fan-less.
How many games will they play?
The discussions around this seem to centre on the agreement that players are only to receive 72 per cent of their pay this upcoming season because there’s a (capped) escrow agreement. The deal was originally made without any specifics on how many games have to be played, meaning the players think it’s 72 per cent of their agreed-upon number regardless, and the owners can argue that it’s 72 per cent … assuming an 82 game schedule, implying the number would be pro-rated down from there were there fewer games. So, there’s some ironing out to do between the players and league there.
But most estimates I’ve seen predict them playing somewhere in the 56-72 game range, and that lines up with what I’ve personally heard as well. (My take here is 56 would be really disappointing — I’d hope for at least north of 60.)
A hub issue to consider
One of the reasons the league doesn’t love the idea of hubs, which I didn’t mention above, is that it limits ice sheets. That means only a few teams can play in prime time, which means puck drops have to be staggered throughout the days (remember noon puck drops in the playoffs?). That isn’t great for viewing if you keep regular business hours, or if you’re a television network that would like decent ratings. Little insider tip here, too: most of them would.
As a biased observer (I should say “super biased,” as I work from home and want day games), a return in any form would be amazing, even if it’s less than ideal. To get where we want to get – back to those wonderful end-of-season playoff pushes and beyond, with the season’s integrity still intact - we’ve got to start the journey in some fashion.
In the end, like so many people, the league and its players are just going to have to deal with “less than ideal” for a while, and plow ahead on our way back to whatever becomes our next normal. And however it ends up looking, you can find some excitement in the fact that hockey is coming, and coming reasonably soon.