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NHL exploring temporary realignment, short-term hubs for 2020-21

Commissioner Bettman says League could play reduced schedule amid pandemic

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The NHL is exploring short-term hubs, temporary realignment and a reduced schedule as options for the 2020-21 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.

Commissioner Bettman said he would never ask players to return to a bubble for an entire season after the NHL finished the 2019-20 season and staged the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto from July 25-Sept. 28, requiring isolation, daily testing and strict protocols.

But he said the League is exploring teams playing in their own arenas (with or without fans depending on the local situation), in hubs or in a hybrid system.

Any plan would be a collaborative effort between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, as was the 2020 Return to Play Plan. Though both sides are in constant and regular communication, there haven't been any regular meetings. 

If teams play in hubs, they will rotate in and out. 

"You'll play for 10 to 12 days," Commissioner Bettman said in a virtual panel discussion during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit. "You'll play a bunch of games without traveling. You'll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We'll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need.

"It's not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that's one of the things that we're talking about."

Commissioner Bettman has said in the past the NHL is targeting a Jan. 1 start and how the season starts is not necessarily how it will finish, depending on how the situation evolves.

The NHL and NHLPA will have to consider many factors, including the closure to nonessential travel of the United States-Canada border.

"Obviously, we're not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play," Commissioner Bettman said. "And while crossing the U.S.-Canadian border is an issue, we're also seeing within the United States limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states. It's again part of having to be flexible. …

"As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense.

"It may be that we're better off, particularly if we're playing a reduced schedule, which we're contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues."

Commissioner Bettman said when the NHL returned after pausing the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, it had to transform itself into a studio sport, tailoring the game presentation to a TV audience.

"What we were doing was trying to create an energy and excitement and coverage of our game that would be compelling in the absence of fans," he said.

TV ratings were down, as they were across sports. Commissioner Bettman pointed to two factors:

One, fans in the stands give games energy that comes through on television, and some of that was missed.

Two, research showed that that while avid fans would watch the NHL at any time, casual fans were less inclined to watch in the summer.

"And so that's where I think a lot of the falloff came," Commissioner Bettman said. "And while we're in the middle of working on our return to play as well, which I hope to have put to bed soon, our goal is to get back to a normal schedule starting [next] fall and being done before July on a longer-term basis. That is the goal."

Safety is the priority, though, and the NHL can help set an example.

Commissioner Bettman appeared on the panel with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Manfred said during its return to play MLB was focused on how, as an everyday sport, baseball would play through a positive COVID-19 test. When it had a flare-up, he spoke over the phone with Commissioner Bettman.

"I was talking to Gary from my den at home, and I remember us kind of reaching the conclusion, maybe it's not about playing through it," Manfred said. "Maybe what you've really got to worry about is making sure it doesn't spread.

"That conversation led to us changing our approach a little bit. We had shutdowns and just accepted the fact that we were going to have to reschedule to get through. But those are the kind of conversations that I think make a real difference."

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