The National Hockey League is considering starting its 2020-21 season as late as this December, as the league is forced to embrace a greater flexibility on its timing due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The league previously said it did not anticipate an extension or lengthening of the currently suspended 2019-20 season would preclude a normal schedule for the following year. But as the public health crisis has continued and grown, the NHL is now thinking more broadly about timing as safety remains the prime consideration.
“We have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when we can start,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in an interview with the NHL Network. “There’s no magic for next season of starting in October as we traditionally do. If we have to start in November or December, that’s something that will be under consideration. We’re going to try to make good, prudent, careful judgments. This isn’t a race to be first back.”
As other sports properties such as Nascar and the PGA Tour that have competitors that can socially distance make their way back to competition, other stick-and-ball leagues such as the NHL remain on a slower timetable. The NHL and NHL Players Association are eying a move this month to a second phase of a return-to-play plan, which involves small group activities at NHL team training facilities.
The league and union had previously had hoped that would occur by late April, but there remains no set timetables for any part of its resumption efforts.
“We’re going to have to take things one step at a time, because the health and well-being of our players is paramount to anything we’re focused on,” Bettman said. “Our health concerns for the players really fit into two categories. One is obviously Covid-19, and two, whatever we’re going to do, we don’t want them playing games until they’re back in game shape. We don’t want anybody getting injured.”
The NHL also faces some additional resumption hurdles compared to other sports properties, as the US-Canada border remains closed amid the pandemic, and will face travel restrictions for European players currently at home in their native countries.
As a result, the league has also postponed a series of tentpole spring events, including the Draft.