- The NHL is hoping for a start date around January 15, 2021.
- The league and players are trying to work out a variety of financial and logistical issues.
- The 2020-2021 season will be truncated with a 52 to 56 game schedule seen as most likely.
While the NBA is making good progress at preparing for the 2020-2021 season that’s not necessarily the case in the National Hockey League. The NHL and NHL Players Association continue to work through a myriad of thorny issues that include financial considerations as well as logistical details. The result is that the start of the 2020-2021 season has been pushed back several times and could be delayed once again. The original plan was to start in late November or early December before that was changed to January 1.
That date hasn’t changed publicly though last week NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called the start date ‘a work in progress’. Bettman also made the observation that although the league is not trying to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement signed earlier this year that there are a number of elements related to the COVID-19 pandemic that must be addressed:
“We made a number of assumptions collectively over the summer, most of which are not applicable anymore. There are a lot of things that we have to deal with if we are going to return to play.”
The fact of the matter is that despite no firm contrary statement from the league to this effect the January 1 start date is no longer realistic. The expectation now is that the league is targeting a mid-January return to play, a timeframe validated by TSN hockey reporter Pierre LeBrun:
The financial issues are related primarily to the uncertain revenue prospects for the upcoming season. Owners want to alter the 50-50 revenue split in the current CBA to compensate for what will likely be significant losses during the 2020-2021 season. The players position is that the owners should have anticipated these considerations when they agreed to extend the previous CBA. Both sides will likely come off of these positions with an eventual ‘meet in the middle’ agreement on salary deferral and escrow amounts.
Although the financial issues are the most contentious there are plenty of other details to work out. The logistical demands of putting a season together during the COVID-19 pandemic are made significantly more problematic due to a lack of clarity on what will happen between now and mid 2021. Currently, the situation is bad in many parts of the United States and to a lesser degree in Canada. The hope is that this will improve shortly after the first of the year. Beyond that, everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that a COVID-19 vaccine (or vaccines) will be quickly and widely available to the degree that some type of normalcy can return by early summer at the latest.
The current working plan calls for a schedule somewhere in the 52 to 56 game range. There will likely be some type of a ‘buffer’ worked into the schedule in the event that games have to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. A temporary divisional realignment is also very likely with the plan being to create a 7 team ‘all-Canada’ division due to cross border travel restrictions. The timetable would have the regular season run through early May with the Stanley Cup Final to end in late June or early July.
There have also been reports that a few teams–identified as Anaheim, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh–are exploring the feasibility of playing home games outdoors in hopes that fans would be allowed to attend. It is considered a ‘long shot’ but teams are at least looking into what would be an unprecedented move.
As Pierre LeBrun noted in his Tweet, the upcoming week is a ‘make or break’ time if there’s any hope of having a mid January start. With the NBA preparing to begin play on December 22 there is–at least in theory–more pressure on the NHL to put their house in order.