By Michael Russo Oct 23, 2020
The NHL spared no expense, spending an estimated $75-90 million to isolate 24 teams and administer 33,394 COVID-19 tests (with zero positive results) to complete the 2019-20 season. The games were competitive and the Stanley Cup was awarded 201 days after the NHL suspended the season on March 12.
But as challenging as it was to plan and execute the summer’s return to play, just imagine the immense number of steps involved in planning the 2020-21 season that’s almost assuredly going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before.
“It’s a totally different challenge and requires a whole bunch of different considerations that I think probably, in some respects, are more challenging than the return to play plans,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic during a 20-minute phone conversation after Friday’s two-hour GMs meeting. “You need to gather as much information as you can, you need to take as much time as you can, and you need to make the best decisions you can.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but there are options that we can pursue, and hopefully we pick the right ones.”
Is the Canada-U.S. border going to be open? What will the winter months bring in terms of COVID-19? What will the local authorities in each market allow? Will arenas eventually be allowed to open to at least some fans?
Here are the biggest obstacles.
First, the current COVID-19 numbers in North America make it so that, if the NHL truly expects to open next season “on or around Jan. 1,” it’s hard to imagine any way the league can open 31 arenas in two countries with fans in the stands.
Second, the NHL was able to complete last season because it essentially put 24 teams with 52-member traveling parties each plus hundreds of other staffers in two fenced-off bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. It was expensive and thorough — and necessary to get it done. But that’s not something that feasibly can be done for a regular season with 31 teams made up of 700-plus players, not to mention the hundreds of staff also needed.
Third, the Canadian government doesn’t seem ready to allow its seven NHL teams to travel freely back and forth over the border, although perhaps a positive step came Thursday when the Toronto Sun reported that international travelers can be tested for COVID-19 as a means to relax the country’s mandatory 14-day quarantine as long as upon entry passengers who test negative agree to a second test within a week.
“The pilot program, at least on its face, if it goes well and it becomes more widespread, and that is the mechanism (for) health and safety, … that could be very, very helpful to a return to play strategy next season for us,” Daly said.
“We’re in a situation where things are evolving every day. You’re monitoring the evolution of the virus and the searches for answers on the virus. You’re monitoring travel restrictions and how we can move clubs around, if we can move clubs around. And we’re monitoring local restrictions with respect to spectators and fans. You’ve got to stay on top of everything and understand things, and they become a very relevant context for the ultimate decisions you make.”
The NHL continues to gather information from the teams, particularly financials, to determine what’s feasible for 31 owners who are going to have minimal revenue coming in next season if no fans are in the stands.
“I do think (the owners) are unified,” Daly said. “We’re going to work with them and the players in terms of coming up with the right solution for the league, for their clubs, and for the long-term value of their interests in the league. This is going to be challenging economically next year under any scenario. We understand that, they understand that. Ultimately, you’re doing what’s necessary to preserve the asset value of the asset you’ve purchased and you’ve invested in.”
As The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun has reported, there will be another joint Return to Play committee, which will include about 10 players. An NHLPA source said it’s critically important that the players have input in the process. The NHLPA must sign off on everything just like when the league and union in the spring and early summer jointly worked out the league’s return to play details.
“The players’ perspective and the Players’ Association’s perspective and their input on whatever plan we ultimately come up with is critical to our ability to be successful,” Daly said. “I think you saw that in our return to play plan. If we didn’t have the players’ commitment and buy-in to all the health and safety protocols and how they approached their business and maintaining the security of the bubble on a regular basis, there’s no way we could have pulled off what we pulled off in Toronto and Edmonton.”
One other issue that may arise is player salaries.
In July, to get a flat cap and for both sides to get a collective bargaining extension, the players agreed to defer 10 percent of their 2020-21 salaries and put another 20 percent (of the remaining 90 percent) into escrow. That means they’re expecting to play for 72 percent of their salaries. A union source said the players expect the owners to adhere to the terms of the CBA no matter how many games are played next season and whether there are fans or not.
But some teams that are bleeding may scoff at that.
“As with anything else, it’s all on the fly, right?” Daly said. “We have to work with the Players’ Association over what a return to play plan looks like for next year. And anything considered, talked about, discussed in the context of that ultimately has to be signed off on by both sides. Everybody has an interest in us having a season and awarding a Cup next year. And everybody will be pulling in the same direction in terms of getting there.”
This is why it’s difficult to forecast exactly what next season could look like, and commissioner Gary Bettman and Daly couldn’t give general managers a lot of hard answers about next season during Friday’s meeting.
Bettman, Daly, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and general counsel Don Zavelo are in regular contact and working hard behind the scenes coming up with multiple potential scenarios for next season. They’ve watched closely how the MLB navigated its season into the World Series, and they’re eyeballing the NFL.
So there’s probably nothing they haven’t thought of or considered.
One option that seems to be gaining traction includes starting next season in four hub locations, with modified bubbles that wouldn’t be walled off or nearly as strict. This would require temporarily realigning the league (including an all-Canadian division if the Canadian teams can’t cross the border) and hoping at some point that all 31 arenas could open with some semblance of fans in the stands.
But, Daly, cautions, “I’m being honest when I say that there is no likely scenario. In other words, I couldn’t pick one. I could identify 10 to 12 scenarios for you right now and I wouldn’t be able to pick a likely scenario. While we have to make these decisions in a matter of weeks, I couldn’t tell you that we’re leaning any one over any other. It really is going to be a product of a whole bunch of considerations that have yet to materialize.”
While the league is targeting around Jan. 1 to open the season, if there’s a chance fans could be allowed to watch games at some point in the late wintertime or early spring, the league could conceivably hold off starting even longer.
That’s why Bettman is expected to wait as long as he possibly can before unveiling the league’s complete plans for next season.
Hey, it worked for him last time, and with COVID-19 numbers once again spiking in the United States with 60,000 positive tests per day, even the best and most ironed-out plans can change in a nanosecond.
Now, let’s explore the scenario for next season that appears to be gaining traction and the potential hub cities that make sense. But remember, a frontrunner today could be crossed off tomorrow depending on COVID-19 numbers or what health authorities will allow.
Shortened season?It’s the likelihood. If so, 48 to 60 games is a good wager.
If the league starts in January, we’ve seen a 48-game model work in 1995 and 2013 after lockouts were settled. But because of the potential of round robins in hubs and a couple games per day, the league could probably play north of 50 but less than 60.
If the season really does start on or around Jan. 1, the NHL and NHLPA have agreed to a training camp of roughly 14 days. And, as LeBrun has reported, the seven teams that didn’t take part in this summer’s return to play (Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit and New Jersey) would likely have an extended training camp.
There are two reasons why folks think next season could be shortened: 1) Both sides hope to get back to a normal 82-game schedule in 2021-22; 2) NBC, the NHL’s U.S. national TV rightsholder in the final year of a 10-year, $2 billion deal, and its other platforms are televising the Summer Olympics, so it’s believed the league wants to award the Stanley Cup by June 30.
But Daly said, “I wouldn’t say anything is set in stone. My guess are the Olympics to some extent is fairly conditional right now. Nobody knows what’s going to happen that far out. So, I think, (ending by June 30) is a consideration. That’s something we have to be focused on. But I don’t think it’s a wall or a barrier as opposed to just another obstacle.”
Four hubs?That’s the scuttlebutt.
With the timeline the league is aiming for and the current COVID-19 numbers, it’s impossible to see a scenario where the league can simply open up 31 arenas with fans. Local governments make the rules here, and every jurisdiction is different.
The goal is to get to a point where the hubs close and individual arenas open with at least some fans in attendance.
But if the Canadian border is still closed and teams can’t return after crossing into the United States, the league will have no choice but to fulfill the lifelong dream of Canadians everywhere and create a seven-team all-Canadian division. This is creating the biggest mess for the NHL because, if the border never opens, those seven teams would have to play against each other all season or eventually travel to the United States and potentially stay.
Now, these are not going to be considered bubbles, like Edmonton and Toronto were.
The league is very sensitive to what it’s willing to put the players through again. Players don’t want to spend all season inside a bubble away from their families, and it doesn’t sound like the league will ask them to.
So, let’s call them hubs.
Like Toronto and Edmonton, the NHL would probably “own and operate” the hotels and there will be some level of testing, but they’re not going to fence off the arena, hotels and restaurants. The league will do its best to control the environment, but players and staff should have more freedom (like going to dinner) and, alas, reporters should be able to cover the events in more of a normal capacity.
Realigned divisions?There has to be if there’s an all-Canadian division.
Allowing 24 teams to play north of the border was allowed during the summer because the NHL created two bubbles and controlled the environment in walled-off settings. The Canadian government allowed the league a dispensation because the players and staff were essentially satisfying a mandatory quarantine, staying in isolation while being tested constantly.
But as we saw with the Blue Jays (MLB) playing their home games in Buffalo and Toronto FC (MLS) playing home games in Hartford, the Canadian government is not showing any appetite to permit teams to travel in and out of Canada.
In essence, once teams cross, they’d be stuck in the U.S.
So if the seven Canadian teams make up one division, the league will need to temporarily realign the rest of the league into probably three eight-team divisions.
A scenario that may make sense?
Revamped Pacific: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose and Vegas.
Revamped Central: Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, St. Louis and Tampa Bay.
Revamped Atlantic/Metro: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, N.Y. Islanders, N.Y. Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
Possible division realignment
Calgary Anaheim Carolina Boston
Edmonton Arizona Chicago Buffalo
Montreal Colorado Columbus New Jersey
Ottawa Dallas Detroit NY Islanders
Toronto Los Angeles Florida NY Rangers
Vancouver Minnesota Nashville Philadelphia
Winnipeg San Jose St. Louis Pittsburgh
Vegas Tampa Bay Washington
Obviously, these could be tweaked for competitive balance or geographical reasons, but this seems to make sense.
Season format?Because the NHL doesn’t want to force teams away from their families indefinitely, there would likely be some sort of round robin of games going on in each hub.
One way to make this work that players could stomach since they travel throughout an 82-game schedule anyway is to create week- or two-week long road trips to the hub.
The league could have four to six teams at a time in the hub. Then, perhaps every week, rotate a team or two in and out. Those teams would return to their home markets to practice. Inside the hub, there could be two games a day, the idle teams on a given day would practice and teams would play four games a week.
Because of competitive balance, since the Canadian teams look like they’ll only be able to play each other, it’s possible each division in the United States would only play the other teams in its division.
Where are the hubs?Any place the beat writers, uh, players and coaches can stay warm and get some sun.
Technically, since these are hubs, there wouldn’t need to be one located in each division. Theoretically, the league could have all three U.S. hubs on the West Coast or other warmer weather locations like Arizona, Las Vegas, Dallas or Florida.
Now, while that might be welcomed by all in the middle of winter, that actually may not happen for every team.
In other words, does it make sense to force teams on the East Coast to play their games in California or somewhere out West?
One prerequisite surely has to be a location where a hotel (or two) that can accommodate four to six teams is either right next to the arena or practice facility.
The other is an arena that has four dressing rooms since there would be multiple games per day.
With those two things in mind, one frontrunner is likely Buffalo.
The Buffalo Marriott Harborcenter is attached to KeyBank Center and right in the heart of the Canalside district.
There are four dressing rooms at the arena and another nine in the connected Harborcenter, which has two NHL-sized rinks.
Frankly, depending what the rules are in New York at the time, it’s exactly what the league would be looking for.
As for the Canada hubs, we know Toronto and Edmonton can pull it off. If the season starts Jan. 1, Edmonton would have a conflict due to the World Junior Championships. The league loves Vancouver and was so close to going there in July. The arena and hotel situation would be perfect, but there’s a chance the provincial medical experts scoff again. Players would love Montreal, while Winnipeg is right in the middle of the country with a terrific arena and hotels right by the rink.
Others U.S, markets that make sense:
Columbus: If the Jackets move into the Central and the league feels it makes most sense for each division to have its own hub location, Columbus would be a logical choice. Lots of hotel options. There’s the Hilton, where most teams stay, the Hyatt and Crowne Plaza down the block, and loads of restaurant options. But mostly, the practice facility is attached to the arena and there are four dressing rooms in Nationwide Arena.
Anaheim: The Ducks are pushing hard and putting on a compelling case. There are multiple hotels within three or four miles of Honda Center, including the recently-opened JW Marriott and the soon-to-be-opened Westin. But there’s also a bunch of hotels about 12 miles up I-5 near the Ducks’ brand-spanking-new practice facility (Great Park) in Irvine. So, perhaps it makes sense to host the teams there instead of in Anaheim. As for the Honda Center, it has held multiple multi-team events, so it should be able to accommodate four teams at the arena on an event level (including the home and visitors’ dressing rooms) that’s about to complete a total renovation.
Los Angeles: L.A.’s good, but not perfect. While the Staples Center is the perfect location because it’s right across the street from L.A. Live (multiple restaurants and two high-end hotels that could easily accommodate four to six teams) and the arena has six dressing rooms, the practice facility in El Segundo would be excruciating to get to via bus because of heavy L.A. traffic.
Las Vegas: Remember, the NHL was heading there until COVID numbers in the area started to rise. T-Mobile Arena has four dressing rooms and is a short walk from New York New York Hotel and Park MGM Hotel. The Golden Knights’ practice facility, City National Arena, has two sheets and two dressing rooms and is right across from Red Rock Resort Hotel.
Arizona: The lone problem here is the drive between the Coyotes’ practice facility in Scottsdale and Gila River Arena in Glendale. But there are plenty of posh hotels in Scottdale, or if teams were going to stay by the arena, the Renaissance is a stone’s throw away and there are plenty of restaurant options in both cities.
Dallas: The Stars want it, and the W is right next to American Airlines Center, plus the always popular Ritz-Carlton or Crescent Court are right up the hill. Tons of restaurants. The arena has six auxiliary dressing rooms and two blown-out hockey setups: the Stars room and visiting room. The Stars also operate eight rinks (16 ice surfaces) in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Oh, and Texas seems to have an appetite to allow fans in the building. Most places are allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity indoors, according to The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro, and the Cowboys are averaging 25,000 a game in a stadium that holds 90,000.
Tampa: Tampa would be perfect because there’s multiple hotels right down the street from Amalie Arena. The problem that may rule the city out? The Super Bowl is in Tampa on Feb. 7, and a quick Internet search shows that those hotels are mostly sold out in the few weeks leading up to the game.
Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Chicago: Grouping these three hockey hotbeds because they all would have interest but may not make sense. All three were finalists for the return to play this summer, especially Chicago. But this time around, Columbus makes more sense if the league’s going to pick a team in the Central (as there is no hotel next to the United Center). Same, arguably, with Buffalo if Pittsburgh’s in the Sabres’ division. And, frankly, even though the St. Paul Hotel is across Rice Park from Xcel Energy Center and players and staff could actually take underground tunnels to the arena from the hotel, Anaheim, L.A., Vegas and Arizona make more sense if the Wild are in the Pacific simply from a travel and, yes, weather component. One can say the same thing about Colorado.
Once more, this is just one of many scenarios, but the one that seems to have the most traction.
Regardless, again, the players would have to sign off on it and a lot can change between now and, well, whenever the eventual target date is.
It’s impossible to forecast the future these days, which is why this is so difficult for the NHL and NHLPA to finalize.
The biggest goal is to figure out ways to bring in some sort of revenue in such a turbulent time.
So, bottom line, a lot of work still needs to be done and Bettman’s probably going to wait as long as he can before announcing exactly what next season will look like and when it’s officially starting.