The restarted NHL season is just over a month old. The bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton have held, with zero positive tests for the coronavirus. The action on the ice has been exciting, if missing that extra zest of a live playoff audience. After facing so many challenges in returning to play -- including owners and the players agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement -- it appears the Stanley Cup will be awarded and a 10-month-long 2019-20 season will be concluded.
Then comes the hard part: Figuring out what on earth the 2020-21 season is going to look like.It's something NHL teams inside and outside the bubble have been planning for during the past few months. Modeling seasons with or without fans. Estimating the cost of COVID-related safety measures. Attempting to predict the length, and more importantly the location, of the NHL's next season.
"We know it's going to be bad. We're going to try and make it as 'least bad' as possible," one NHL team executive told ESPN recently. "We know we're going to take a bath. We're all going to take big baths."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called any declarative statements about next season "premature," adding "we are not far along in the planning for next year, nor do we need to be." But teams are formulating and forecasting, given how quickly they'll have to move when those plans are formalized. Over the past week, ESPN spoke to team and league executives to take the pulse of what next hockey season might look like.
What the schedule will look like
Ever since the pandemic upended the 2019-20 season, commissioner Gary Bettman has been insistent on restoring as much normalcy as possible next season, including a full 82-game slate for every team.
"Looking at the schedule, making some adjustments, we believe we can play a full season, and if we run a little later than usual, that may be one of the consequences," he said.
The NHL and NHL Players' Association tentatively agreed to a Dec. 1 start date for 2020-21, with training camps beginning on Nov. 17. But privately, team executives believe that's too ambitious. The further the NHL pushes back the start date, the less likely a full schedule is. Awarding a Stanley Cup in September or October isn't going to be a regular occurrence. As one high-ranking team business executive told ESPN bluntly: "We all realize an 82-game schedule for next season is a pipe dream. It's just not going to happen."
One NHL executive told ESPN he anticipated a season of around 60 to 65 games, beginning in mid-to-late January. Another NHL team executive believed 70 games would be the baseline for next season, because that's a number typically used as a minimum for regional TV contracts -- although that number was "more of a guidepost" than a mandatory minimum.
Aaron Teats, the Anaheim Ducks' president of business operations, believes the situation remains fluid. "It's been made abundantly clear by Gary and the league that there has to be a high degree of flexibility here," Teats said. "There is a tentative Dec. 1 date, but there is also the desire to play in front of as many fans as possible. We are all hopeful that can be full buildings." In an interview with NHL.com in late August, Daly emphasized patience. The NHL waited until as late as possible to finalize details for the return-to-play tournament this summer -- allowing the league to pivot from Las Vegas to two Canadian cities -- and will follow a similar approach this fall.
"We also have the benefit of being able to observe what happens over the next several weeks and months with respect to the fall sports and college sports and European leagues, how everything kind of shakes out around the world, really, in terms of live sporting events and how they're conducted," Daly told NHL.com. "We don't have to make that decision today, similar to other decisions we make along the way in this process."
But league partners are having to already make those calls. The ECHL board of governors has approved a revised start date for its 2020-21 season of Dec. 4, for a full 72-game schedule. The American Hockey League, the NHL's top minor league affiliate, is already planning for a condensed schedule. The AHL has pushed its start date back from Oct. 9 to Dec. 4, though newly appointed league president Scott Howson emphasized that the AHL remains amenable to changes. There is currently no targeted end date for the AHL season.
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