It’s already early November and the Detroit Red Wings were supposed to already be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by now. But not only is the NHL not playing games, beyond shooting for a loose start date of Jan. 1, it’s not even giving us any idea when we’ll be watching the best league in the world play again.
But things are inching forward, not near as quickly as most hockey fans would like, but inching forward nonetheless. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman updated the league’s board of governors Thursday afternoon, about the same time the NHL Players’ Association’s executive board was meeting to discuss return-to-play options. Those looking for the league to make a bold proclamation and set a date in stone the way the NBA did when it struck a deal with its players’ association for a 72-game season starting Dec. 22, will be disappointed. The purpose of both meetings was basically to lay out possible scenarios for return-to-play and update its constituents.
The league has said on numerous occasions that it is shooting for a start date of Jan. 1, but has been very clear that the date is subject to change. There was very little on Thursday’s call that hasn’t already been discussed, but it’s important to note that the NHL prefers using all of its buildings and having opponents play two- or three-game series against each other rather than using the short-term bubble concept. Bettman laid out the plans to the board of governors as follows:
* The league is still shooting to start Jan. 1, with training camps beginning in mid-December. Pre-camp skates would begin Dec. 1, with teams that failed to make the playoffs last season starting earlier.
* The league would like to see the season end by late June or mid-July at the latest, which would eliminate the possibility of a full 82-game season. The more realistic number is between 48 and 56 games. One of the reasons the league wants to use all their buildings would be to give each team the opportunity to gain some revenues from regional sports networks and local sponsorship. As it stands now, the paybacks to regional sports networks and local corporate sponsors have the potential to be crippling for some teams.
* The league might still start with the short-term bubble concept, or pivot to using that at some point in the season. But the preference is to have each team play out of its own arena.
* The seven Canadian teams would make up one division, with the other three divisions being formed along regional lines to minimize travel.
* The NHL and NHLPA are still working out the economics and the return-to-play protocols. The players have maintained that they should receive 72 percent of their salaries for the 2020-21 season, but with revenues greatly reduced and an ultimate 50-50 split, the players are essentially faced with the prospect of covering the losses now or in years to come. Regardless of what the players are paid next season, the league will ultimately have to be made whole.
* The league is hoping to have fans and is still holding out hope for a format which would see it play the first one-third of the season with no spectators, the second with socially distanced crowds and the final third with larger crowds. But the reality is that it has no control over that.
So why don’t Bettman and the NHL press ahead and be more proactive with the start of the season? Well, all you have to do is look at how the league handled return-to-play during the summer. The NHL was slow to announce its intentions last spring as well, choosing to gather as much information and wait as long as possible before going ahead with any concrete plans. And we all know how that turned out. The NHL’s return-to-play plan was by far the best of any of the professional sports. The bubbles the league created turned out to be safest places in the world for its athletes to be. There were over 30,000 COVID tests conducted and there was not a single positive. Even Bettman’s many detractors would have to grudgingly admit that the commissioner did the best work of his career last summer.
And that’s precisely why there have been no bold proclamations this time around. Had Bettman jumped the gun last time, the league might have ended up going to Las Vegas for its western bubble instead of Edmonton. Even though Bettman is a lawyer and understands the concept of a caveat, he doesn’t want the league to paint itself into a corner by overpromising and under delivering. Given the success the league had over the summer, it’s a wise course of action.