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NHL explores reduced schedule, short-term hubs for 2020-21 season

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (Credit: Getty Images)

The National Hockey League is considering a wide range of dramatic measures to try to keep its forthcoming 2020-21 season a success in the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The league’s plans include short-term geographic hubs, a temporary divisional realignment, and a reduced schedule, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit.

Bettman said a bubble environment for the entire season was not an option despite the operational success this past season of the league’s expanded Stanley Cup playoffs in the Canadian markets of Toronto and Edmonton. The NHL Players Association has already been dismissive of the prospect of a return to a quarantined bubble environment for an extended period of time.

Instead, the league is exploring teams playing in their own arenas, in short-term hubs or in a hybrid system to maintain a regular broadcast schedule and ensure the NHL’s lucrative media-rights income. It remains unclear if fans will be allowed in arenas.

“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. 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,” Bettman said. “It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we’re talking about.”

Among the factors the NHL will have to deal with are the continued closure of the United States-Canada border for nonessential travel and travel restrictions between different states within the US, with the latter continuing to grow in scope as virus cases rise. This could lead to a temporarily realignment of the divisions to make things more “geographically centric,” Bettman said.

Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley recently hinted that the NHL’s seven Canadian teams will play in their own realigned division next season.

The league and NHLPA are still targeting a January 1, 2021, start date. But a reduced schedule also remains possible, Bettman added. The 2021 Winter Classic and All-Star Game will not be held.

The National Basketball Association, for its part, is poised to play a reduced 72-game season starting on December 22 after the league and players’ union reached an agreement in principle on the parameters of next season.

“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,” Bettman added. “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…

“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,” he said.