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Next NHL Season Will Probably Be A Mess

Ross Everett
by in NHL on
  • The expectation is that the 2020-2021 NHL season will begin in December.
  • Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that he wants to remain flexible and not commit to a start date too soon.
  • The 2020-2021 season might be played in some sort of ‘bubble’ as well.

If you were thinking that sports would ‘get back to normal’ by the end of the year I’ve got some bad news for you. There’s very little to suggest that will be the case. With the caveat that there could always be some sort of ‘game changer’ like a COVID-19 vaccine it looks like sports will be played on strange schedules without fans for at least another year.

The National Hockey League (NHL) has done a good job keeping players safe in the ‘bubble’ cities of Edmonton and Toronto and the playoffs have been very entertaining. Although the official ‘party line’ of the NHL is that they’re not going to ‘rule anything in or rule anything out’ there’s increasing talk that the 2020-2021 regular season could end up in some type of ‘bubble’ as well.

Although the NHL is taking a public stance of ‘wait and see’ behind the scenes they’re already working on contingencies. One format under discussion is to play the regular season in four ‘bubble cities’ with eight teams in each (though one ‘bubble’ would only have seven teams). The teams would play 7 or 8 games in each ‘bubble’ and then rotate to the next ‘bubble’. Whether the players would accept a longer term of bubble isolation remains to be seen.


The December start to the regular season makes sense and that looks to be the working plan for the minor leagues and juniors. The American Hockey League (AHL) is targeting a December 4, 2020 start date for their next season. At least that’s the plan–league sources also suggest that their start date will depend on the NHL’s start date. That is a sound logistical move given the AHL’s status as the top minor league.

The AHL has other issues to deal with. One of the most significant is the financial stability of the teams in the league. Minor league hockey gets most of their revenue from ‘game night’ expenditures–tickets, popcorn, beer, etc. For that reason, teams could find playing without fans a ‘non-starter’ unlike their major league counterparts. The AHL is considering the possibility of allowing teams to ‘opt out’ for the next season if they’re not able to host fans in some capacity. The NHL affiliates of teams will also be expected to kick in more money.

The ECHL is also shooting for a December 4 start date and is planning on a full 72 game slate and working toward having fans in attendance. The hope is for something of a ‘business as usual’ strategy with the season ending six weeks later than usual. Obviously, their decision could also depend on what the NHL does as well as external factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of the top juniors leagues–the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Western Hockey League (WHL) are also looking at an early December start.

The NHL won’t say this publicly, but they’ll likely wait to see what happens with the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The league isn’t as dependent on game night revenues as their minor league counterparts but they do make up a fairly significant chunk. The exact numbers vary from team to team but league-wide the total is in the billions of dollars:

According to CNBC, the NHL gets approximately 36% of all revenues from ticket sales, and that amounted to $1.86 billion in 2018-19. According to the Forbes.com annual evaluations, the Pittsburgh Penguins earned $76 million in gate receipts last season, which accounted for 41.3% of total revenue.

Ultimately, the only thing that is certain about the 2020-2021 season is uncertainty. That’s evident from this statement from NHL Assistant Commissioner Bill Daly:

“I don’t want to rule anything out because I think there are so many alternatives and possibilities and ways that it could play out. I can’t tell you that we necessarily thought of a divisional bubble. I don’t think our current bubble format would work for the regular season, especially because our goal is to play a full season and I don’t know how we are doing it in the format we are currently using. It’s already a long time just to finish our playoffs in this type of bubble format. I don’t think it will look like what we are doing now, but could it be a variation of what we are doing now. I wouldn’t rule this out any more than I would rule out a number of other alternatives.

If he knows anything, he’s not talking. The NHL isn’t the only league dealing with the unknown and typically they deal with things better than most of their counterparts. It sure doesn’t sound like we can look forward to a ‘normal’ hockey season in 2020-2021.

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