Border closure complicating NHL's plans for next term
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman is very confident all 31 teams will play a full 82-game regular season in 2020-21-he's just not sure when the puck will drop.
Two months ago the NHL announced a tentative start date of Dec 1, but Bettman said during a Zoom media conference in Edmonton, Canada, this week that it could get pushed back to late December or early January because of the extended closure of the Canada-US border to nonessential travel.
Either way, the plan is to avoid playing next season's Stanley Cup playoffs in the summer.
"If there's an option to consider, believe me, we're considering it," said Bettman, who is in Edmonton for the Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It's conceivable that we start next season without fans, then move to socially distant fans at some point and then maybe eventually our buildings are open. Our goal is to get back to as great a sense of normalcy as possible under whatever circumstances are presented."
The NHL currently has seven teams in Canada and 24 in the US, with the expansion Seattle Kraken set to enter the league in 2021-22.The closure of the Canada-US border, which was recently extended until at least November, looms as a major obstacle to next season.
The Canadian government approved the NHL holding this year's playoffs in quarantine bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, but prohibited non-citizen members of players' families from entering the country.
"Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States is going to be open by a certain date, nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be, nobody can tell me whether or not our arenas will be able to have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings," said Bettman.
"So we're going to have to do the same thing we did to get ready for the return to play in August: explore all the options, be flexible and agile enough to implement when the time comes. We know it'll be less (money), we know there's a substantial revenue impact, but I'm comfortable that our franchises will be strong enough to weather this, and will come out stronger on the other side."
The commissioner said the NHL is monitoring protocols adopted by European soccer leagues and other North American pro circuits to determine the best course of action.
"How we start doesn't necessarily relate to how we're going to finish," he said. "So if we're going to speculate-and this is pure speculation, I'm just throwing it out there as a random thought-it's conceivable that we start next season without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point and then later maybe our buildings are open.
"I'm not saying that's the case but if you're thinking through all of the conceivable possibilities, there's full, there's empty, and there's a combination."
The NHL has conducted more than 35,000 COVID-19 tests in its two playoff bubbles, with no reported positive tests.