Probably the biggest takeaway from the words of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly exactly one year after COVID shut down the NHL is that once the pandemic is behind all of us, the league wants everything to return to the way it was pre-pandemic as much as possible. And isn’t that what we all want?
Even though the 2020-21 divisional alignment has been novel and exciting at times, particularly for hockey fans in Canada, the expectation is that the league will return to its traditional divisional format next season, with the Arizona Coyotes moving to the Central to accommodate the expansion Seattle Kraken in the Pacific. Even though this year’s post-season will stretch into late July, Bettman expects the 2021-22 season will begin on time in October, presumably in front of capacity crowds, meaning the teams that play in the Stanley Cup final will basically have a one-month off-season. “We’re hopeful, we’re planning, we’re optimistic and we believe that we should be able to start next season on time,” Bettman said.
In other news, the NHL draft will almost certainly go ahead as planned July 23 and 24, with the most confusing draft lottery in professional sports undergoing a few additional tweaks that promise to make it even more confusing. And even though the disaster known as the NHL games in Lake Tahoe ended with the most-watch game on NBC Sports Network ever, Bettman also expects outdoor games to return to normal post-pandemic. “Our game is about the fans,” Bettman said. “And as interesting, as beautiful, as intriguing as the setting was, I think our focus when we can go back is to having fans at outdoor games in record numbers, which is traditionally what we’ve done.”
Bettman did acknowledge that the league might be open to a little more intra-divisional play after watching the rivalries that have built up this season. And while there are currently no plans to go into another playoff bubble, the commissioner acknowledged that the fact that teams will be in a position to cross the Canada-US border in the third round of the playoffs may continue to present challenges. Above all, however, Bettman assured that NHL will happily continue to follow all health protocols established by federal, state/provincial and municipal governments.
As far as the draft is concerned, the league continues to negotiate with the NHL Players’ Association about this year’s event, but it doesn’t appear as though a lot of traction is being made on making changes to the format, largely because those changes would open up very complex cans of worms in several other areas that would have to be addressed. “We have engaged with the Players’ Association on whether some type of deferral to the 2021 draft may be feasible, possible or warranted,” Daly said. “We have not gotten to a conclusion on that issue yet, although we hope to soon. It’s a complicated issue. It implicates a lot of different provisions of our collective bargaining agreement and it’s difficult to work through those issues. I would say that my view would be it’s more likely than not that the 2021 draft would go forward as currently scheduled, which is in late July of 2021.”
As far as the 2022 Winter Olympics are concerned, like Reggie Dunlop in Slap Shot, they’re workin’ on it. Daly said he has been in frequent conversations with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). “The fact of the matter is the IOC (International Olympic Committee) right now has its hands full in terms of finalizing plans for what (this summer’s Games in) Tokyo looks like and, while they have noted that that this issue – hockey and the NHL and NHL players’ potential participation - is on the radar screen and something that has to be dealt with, substantively they’re not yet in a position to do that. I will say on our side of the ocean, we and the Players’ Association have been in communication and we’re collaborating on a list of things we need to be satisfied on to make Olympic participation possible in Beijing.”
Other dribs and drabs that you may or may not care about: Bettman said he envisions the advertising on helmet decals to continue, “but it doesn’t mean we’re on a slippery slope (to putting advertising on uniforms).” And much to the chagrin of NHL players, Bettman said the dressing room access afforded to the media prior to the pandemic will be put back in place once things are safe.