By Bonnie Waters
A New Year’s Day start for the NHL’s 2020-21 season seems increasingly unlikely, and commissioner Gary Bettman admitted as much when he said yesterday that a Jan. 1 start date “is a work in progress.’’
Speaking to the Sports Business Journal on its “Dealmakers in Sports’’ program, Bettman said the league continues to monitor the coronavirus pandemic, and in talking to medical experts he is inclined to wait and see what happens after the holidays.
“We talk to some pretty highly placed people, without name-dropping,’’ he said. “COVID is going through a second wave, which could be worse than the first wave. And between Thanksgiving and the aftermath, and what they think is going to happen for Christmas and the aftermath, we are taking our time and making sure that as we look for ways to move forward. We’re focused on health and safety and doing the right things.’’
After pausing its 2019-20 season March 12, the day after the NBA paused its season, the NHL was able to successfully restart the season in August, bringing 24 of its 31 teams to one of two “bubbles,’’ in Toronto and Edmonton. That’s where teams played a preliminary postseason round, then four rounds of best-of-seven playoff series, culminating in the Tampa Bay Lightning defeating the Dallas Stars in six games in Edmonton. Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to the Lightning on Sept. 28, and the league then went through a condensed offseason, with the NHL Draft on Oct. 6-7 and free agency opening Oct. 9.
At the time, the league said its goal was to play a full 82-game season in 2020-21, starting on or around Dec. 1, but that got pushed back to Jan. 1, which remains the official target date for the start of the season.
However, there has been no indication that goal is possible, as no date has been announced for the start of training camps, and there have been reports that the NHL owners are seeking to amend the collective bargaining agreement they reached with the players before the league restarted play in August. There has been speculation that a full 82-game season would be impossible to pull off at this point. Some have suggested a shortened season, along the lines of the 48-game seasons the league played following the lockouts of 1994 and 2011, might be more realistic.
In the interview, Bettman expressed hope the league could get back to a “normal’’ season in 2021-22, meaning a regular season running from October to April, with 82 regular-season games, and playoffs beginning in April and ending in June. The league’s 32nd team, the expansion Seattle Kraken, is scheduled to begin play in 2021-22.