The 2020-21 NHL season could start in late December or “slip into January” depending on the health conditions and COVID-19 regulations in place later this year, commissioner Gary Bettman said on Saturday before the start of the Stanley Cup final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning in Edmonton.
Speaking during the state of the league news conference he customarily conducts before Game 1 of the final, Bettman emphasized the NHL has made no plans regarding a start date for next season. However, his suggestion of a potential January launch reflected a shift in thinking to a later date than the previously anticipated date of Dec. 1.
Canadian government regulations limiting the entrance of travelers from the United States continue to pose a significant obstacle for the league’s planning because seven of the league’s 31 franchises are located in Canada. “There’s no point right now in making definitive comments on our plans because there’s still too much we don’t know,” Bettman said during a Zoom media conference.
“Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States is going to be open by a date certain, nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be, nobody can tell me whether or not our arenas will be able to have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings, and we’re going to have to do the same thing we did to get ready for the return to play: explore all the options, be flexible and agile enough to implement when the time comes.”
Bettman also said that while next season might start with no fans in the stands — which has been the case for post-season games in the Toronto and Edmonton post-season bubbles — fans might be allowed back in next season as conditions allow. He also said the league is monitoring the protocols adopted by European sports leagues and other North American leagues to determine if the NHL can learn from their experiences.
“How we start doesn’t necessarily relate to how we’re going to finish,” Bettman said. “So if we’re going to speculate — and this is pure speculation, I’m just throwing it out there as a random thought — it’s conceivable that we start without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point and by some point in time maybe our buildings are open. I’m not saying that’s the case but if you’re thinking through all of the conceivable possibilities, there’s full, there’s empty, there’s a combination and again how we start doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how we have to finish.”
The NHL has conducted more than 31,000 COVID-19 tests in its playoff bubbles with no reported positive tests. Bettman thanked players and staffers for diligently following strict protocols that included frequent testing and limits on movement. He also thanked the NHL Players’ Association and executive director Donald Fehr. “This was, in the consummate team sport, the consummate team effort and I’m grateful for everybody who participated,” Bettman said.
Bettman did concede that leaving fans out of arenas created a void that “is enormous and profoundly felt.” For the NHL, which depends more on ticket revenues than the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, it has also created a significant financial hit. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the decision to admit fans will be made by health authorities in each city, no matter what the NHL might want to do.
“Yes, there will be a revenue hit,” Bettman said. “It’s no secret that attendance directly and indirectly impacts at least 50 per cent of our revenues and on whatever basis we may or may not be able to have fans in our buildings, which, by the way, as Bill indicated, is something that may be well beyond our control in terms of local government regulations, that will determine how much the shortfall is off of where we were off of where we were projecting. So again, while we know it will be less, we know there’s a substantial revenue impact, I’m comfortable that our franchises will be strong enough to weather this.”
He added, “The only good news in this context is that the ownership of the 31, soon to be 32 NHL franchises has never been stronger and healthier. While nobody has any revenue coming in right now and owners are obviously writing checks to cover overhead and expenses, our franchises will get through this and will come out stronger on the other side.”
Bettman also said he’s opposed to keeping the expanded playoff format put in effect this summer, a plan that included 24 teams in post-season play instead of the usual 16. “I think what we did this year we needed to do to be fair to the clubs that were on the bubble … in terms of making the playoffs,” he said, “and I think we did the right thing in that regard but I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a prototype for the future. In fact, I still believe that what we have in a normal year is the right way to go.”
A return to what was once considered normal in terms of scheduling remains far off. Bettman said he intends next season to feature an 82-game schedule for each team and full playoffs, but a late December or early January start would push the season into the summer months again. Bettman said he wants to avoid that, but he didn’t elaborate on how that could be done.
“My preference would be to stay out of summer as much as possible. Our fans typically like watching us through the fall, winter and into the spring and it’s always been a goal to be done by the end of June,” he said. “Playing late July, August, September is something that was important to do now and if we can avoid it we will, but again it’s premature to have an answer to that question other than we understand the issue and we’re going to try and deal with it as best we can.”
Bettman also said that while the end of the NHL’s successful return to play plan is near, he’s not relaxing yet. “Actually handing the Cup over to the captain of the winning team will probably be the first time since March 12 I’ll breathe a sigh of relief,” he said. “And maybe I’ll get a full night’s sleep.”