The National Hockey League (NHL) is pondering measures to ensure a safe return for the 2020/21 season, including a reduced schedule and temporary hub cities, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
Speaking on a virtual panel during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit, Bettman confirmed the considerations being taken by the league, whilst the pressure mounts for an official decision to be made on a date for the 2020/21 season to commence, with January 1 looking most likely after Bettman previously quoted the date in October.
Up until the summit, it was unclear whether NHL teams would be asked to return to the bubble format that allowed for the 2019/20 campaign to reach its conclusion in Edmonton and Toronto and kept players away from their families. However, Bettman announced that this would not be an option for the entire season hut short-term bubbles could be utilised instead.
“You'll play for ten to 12 days,” Bettman started. “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.
“It's not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimise the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that's one of the things that we're talking about.”
Another issue for the NHL to contend with is the current border restrictions in place between the United States and Canada that are inhibiting nonessential travel between the two countries.
On the restrictions, Bettman said: “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.
“And while crossing the US-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.”
He added: “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.”
The NHL did not avoid suffering from the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has brought onto a number of sports across the US and the rest of the world. Bettman drew on how having no fans inside of the stadiums may have attributed to the drop-off in television ratings for the Stanley Cup Final last season between Tampa Bay Lighting and Dallas Stars, which was the least-watched final since 2007. He also suggested how research had showed that casual NHL fans might not be inclined to watch the league in the summer.
“And so that's where I think a lot of the falloff came,” Bettman added.
“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.”