The 2019-20 NHL season started on Oct. 2, 2019, and didn’t finish until Sept. 28, 2020, thanks to a pause of nearly five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we’d usually be discussing our first-month takeaways on Nov. 2, we’re instead smack dab in the middle of the offseason, with the 2020 draft and much of free agency in the rear-view mirror.
There’s some uncertainty ahead in terms of when the 2020-21 season will begin, and what it will look like when it does. After discussions with league and team executives and other sources around the NHL, here’s what we know — and what we don’t — as of early November.
Where is the NHL in its planning for the 2020-21 season?
Greg Wyshynski: The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced on Oct. 6 that they have shifted their target date for starting the 2020-21 season to Jan. 1, 2021, after initially targeting Dec. 1 of this year.
The NHL has updated its board of governors and general managers on progress. It has had discussions with the NHLPA, including executive director Don Fehr, regarding the players’ desires for next season. As of Friday, the NHL hadn’t had a negotiating session with the NHLPA’s “return to play” committee of about 10 players but did have one call with the NHLPA representative on that committee.
“It’s premature to be drawing up plans [when] you don’t have a real good idea as to whether they’re practical, feasible or going to be put in place,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN last week. “At some point, we have to do it. But I think to this point, it’s been the general sentiment that we don’t know enough yet to get more granular than we’ve been.”
The mantra from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been that the 2020-21 season doesn’t necessarily have to end the way that it begins. The subtext to that: The NHL fully intends to have fans back in its home arenas at some point this season.
“I think the ultimate goal is to end up with fans in the arenas. I don’t think we’ll get to capacity, but I think we’ll have enough socially distanced fans,” said an NHL source.
While the NHL hopes to have limited-capacity crowds for a portion of the regular season, sources tell ESPN that it definitely wants fans back in arenas for the Stanley Cup playoffs if local restrictions allow for it.
Venues are already booking concerts and events for the spring and summer — why not for hockey?
What’s the timeline for getting plans locked in for next season?
Wyshynski: The NHL paused its 2019-20 season on March 12 and announced details for “Phase 3” (aka training camps) on July 6. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup on Sept. 28. Daly thinks the NHL would need less time to figure out the 2020-21 season details.
“But having said that, there would be — and is — some urgency on behalf of clubs and arenas to know whether that is something they need to prepare for or not. So, you know, I think everybody understands there’s a certain level of urgency to get something planned, but you don’t want to be premature in planning,” he said.
Keep in mind that the “bubble” planning was also connected to a complicated collective bargaining agreement negotiation.
How is this negotiation about next season’s format different than the one leading up to the 2019-20 restart?
Wyshynski: The discussions between the NHL, its owners and its players that led to the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles was laser-focused on two things: securing a new CBA that could help plan a financial path forward through the COVID-19 economic downturn, and plotting the safest way to complete the 2019-20 season at a time when having fans inside arenas for playoff games was an impossibility.
In other words, their options were limited.
As they embark on these talks, it’s a much different landscape. The owners and players have a new CBA. COVID-19 restrictions have been loosened in many places, as other professional sports and entertainment ventures have had fans return to stadia in limited capacities. In June, the NHL could tell its teams, “Here’s how we’re doing it” and there was very little they could say to counter it. Multiple sources tell ESPN that they expect much more discussion and debate in preparation for the 2020-21 season, specifically on when and how fans could return to NHL arenas.
Think about the Dallas Stars, for example. They made a run to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years and didn’t get a dime from selling tickets to those games because they were held inside the Edmonton bubble. (They did hold a few watch parties at American Airlines Center.) Owner Tom Gaglardi runs the largest family-owned hospitality company in Canada, and his businesses in North America have been severely impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns.
Gaglardi reportedly wants to have fans back at Stars games as soon as possible. Beyond the financial bath he has taken, and beyond the playoff revenue he didn’t make, he has watched the Dallas Cowboys open up to 25% capacity for their (open-air) home games.
The latest numbers from the NFL reveal a large cross-section of markets with limited capacity for fans, from Florida to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Tennessee to Colorado to Texas to Arizona. But some states, such as California, have been slower to open up.
The “ultimate goal” of the 2020-21 NHL season is to eventually get teams back in their own arenas, playing in front of their fans, especially for the playoffs. When and how that happens is the question, and it might not be a question answered before the season starts.
As Bettman has said, the league doesn’t have to finish the season as it starts it. The plan can be adjusted on the fly, if local restrictions on capacity, national restrictions on the Canadian border and breakthroughs on COVID-19 allow it.
What are players doing now to get ready for next season?
Emily Kaplan: As one veteran player told me last week, the uncertainty of when actual games are going to be played again has been “a challenge, mentally, for a lot of guys.”
“We’re creatures of habit,” the player said. “We know when to train and how to train to get ready for a season. Not knowing when we have to report back, I know some guys are still unable to get regular ice time because of local restrictions, and just our whole calendar being thrown off — it’s been a challenge for a lot of guys to get into a good rhythm.”
The NHL allowed teams to begin opening their training facilities for voluntary workouts on Oct. 15. However, there is a 19-page document of protocols that takes into account social distancing as well as increased health and safety measures. A team needs notice from at least five players before reopening its facilities for voluntary workouts, and a maximum of 12 players can be on the ice at the same time.
Players and staffers who participate in voluntary offseason workouts are tested for COVID-19 at least twice weekly. Anyone who has had COVID-19 must also undergo a cardiac screening. As of this week, roughly half of the league’s teams have opened their training facilities.
Once players are back in their playing cities, they are advised not to skate at any public rinks, instead using their team facilities (as long as their training facilities have opened). Most players, however, are at their offseason homes — including many in Europe — and with varying levels of lockdowns all over the world, it’s hardly been an even playing field.
What happens to teams that haven’t played since March?
Kaplan: Ah, yes, the stigmatized seven. The Sabres, Senators, Devils, Sharks, Kings, Ducks and Red Wings did not make the NHL’s expanded, 24-team tournament, and therefore players on those teams have not been on the ice together since the NHL went on pause March 12.
Initially, there was scuttlebutt that these teams could get together this fall for an exhibition tournament to stay fresh, but that never got off the ground for a variety of reasons. Instead, Daly said the league has had “significant” discussions with the players’ association, and the expectation is that those seven teams will receive extra training camp time. Though nothing is finalized yet, sources say the seven teams could get about seven to 10 extra days of training camp. Regular training camps, for the record, are expected to be about two weeks long.
When are players being paid?
Kaplan: NHL players last got paid in April, meaning they went six months without a regular paycheck.
But according to an agreement the NHL and NHLPA made this summer, most players received 8.1% of their 2020-21 salaries by Oct. 31. (This applies to any player who was on a roster that was frozen at the time of the NHL’s pause and is under contract for this coming season). After that, players will not receive any payment until next season begins.
If players were due signing bonuses from their teams on July 1, they received them. About $300 million was paid out to players in signing bonus money on July 1, with the Toronto Maple Leafs leading the way, paying out roughly $60 million alone.
Since the NHL has an escrow system, players already know they are going to take a hit for next season. In July, players agreed to defer 10% of their 2020-21 salaries — then put another 20% of the remaining 90% into escrow — to help soften the blow. So players are already expecting to play for less than their full salaries next season.
What could next season look like?
Wyshynski, Kaplan: Let’s start with the obvious: a start date of Jan. 1, mid-January or sometime in February — which some teams believe is still possible — would likely mean a shortened season. That could mean upward of 65 games or as low as 48 games, like we’ve seen in seasons impacted by work stoppages. According to league sources, a 48-game season is considered the absolute minimum at this point.
After that shortened regular season, expect a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff tournament. The NHL invited 24 teams into its postseason in the summer, but that might have been a special exception to Bettman’s playoff rule.
“We want to make it as traditional a tournament as we possibly can. We want to maintain the competitive integrity of the playoffs, for sure,” said Daly, who wouldn’t rule out an expanded postseason but indicated it is “not currently being contemplated.”
There are two reasons the NHL might want to get its shortened season and traditional postseason tournament done as quickly as possible. The biggest priority for the NHL is ensuring the 2021-22 season — which features the debut of the Seattle Kraken and will be the first under a new United States television rights contract — is 82 games. But there’s also speculation that the NHL wants to get its season in before the start of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on July 23.
Daly downplayed the latter as a catalyst.
“I think there is some flexibility if we were to choose that route. There’s a lot left to be played out on the Olympics front too,” he said. “We have models that extend past the Olympic time period. Those are alternatives that are on the table. I can’t tell you they’re the ones that are necessarily going to be pursued, but I think there’s some flexibility there.”
According to several sources, a few owners have suggested to Bettman that the league might be better off financially if it shuts down next season, since playing in empty arenas could be crippling to the bottom line. The NHL is still very much a gate-driven league in comparison to a league like the NFL, which draws most of its revenue from media rights. Bettman responded that the NHL can’t lose a season because it’s too damaging in the long term, as the league has learned before in lockout seasons. So it’s a safe bet that there will be some version of the NHL next season, though it’s going to look different than what we’re used to.
Will there need to be daily testing?
Kaplan: Daily testing was a hallmark of the NHL’s expanded, 24-team tournament this summer. The league administered 33,394 COVID-19 team tests over two months and received zero confirmed positive cases, which it lauded as a huge victory. But it wasn’t cheap. The NHL’s summer tournament cost an estimated $75 million to $90 million, and COVID-19 testing wasn’t an insignificant part of it.
“There’s no doubt it’s expensive,” Daly said. “We will follow the advice of our medical experts in terms of whether it’s necessary in whatever model we end up adopting for the ’20-’21 season. I do expect we’re going to continue to have very frequent testing. I do expect the testing landscape to continue to evolve. And I think it’s evolving rapidly, and I think it’s evolving rapidly probably in a positive way. Again, everything’s changing. Everything is dynamic. And testing, at least until we have a vaccine, is going to be a linchpin of any type of system we put into place.”
The Canadian government and the province of Alberta are introducing a pilot program this week that administers COVID-19 tests to international travelers upon arriving in the country. Those travelers would be able to leave quarantine — skirting the federally mandated 14 days of isolation — once they get a negative result, as long as they commit to getting another test within six to seven days in addition to practicing other daily check-in and public health measures. The NHL will monitor this program closely, as it could be key for the return-to-play strategy for next season.
How is the NHL dealing with the Canadian border issue?
Kaplan: The Canadian border being closed for nonessential travel was a hurdle for the NHL in its return to play this summer, and not much has budged.
“The border situation continues to present challenges, there’s no doubt about that,” Daly said. “We are in touch with the people we need to be in touch with. So we’re up to speed on what’s going on currently and what might be going on in the future. And, you know, that’s the most that I can say about it. Obviously, it factors into how we have to plan for the 2020-21 season. And it will factor in. If it remains exceedingly difficult to travel teams to and from Canada, as I think we’ve been very clear, one possibility is to create competition within the league among the Canadian clubs.”
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases scientist from the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute who consults with the NHLPA, believes the all-Canadian division is likely a necessity.
“I think so, because quite frankly I don’t see the border restrictions changing any time in the near future. And certainly I mean we’re hearing about start dates, you know, either late December or early January or perhaps February, but the start time of the league sounds like it’s going to be in that time frame. I don’t think we’re going to see any major border policy changes between now and then. So I think the league will have to certainly adjust to account for that,” Bogoch said. “We’ve also seen the Canadian government’s approach with hockey. It sounds like it’s either you’re either in or you’re out.”
Another issue to keep in mind with the border closing: The American Hockey League affiliates for the Canucks, Oilers and Flames are all based in the U.S., and if the border situation remains as it is, a mandated 14-day quarantine would make recalls nearly impossible. That’s one of the reasons the AHL also is considering an all-Canadian division, with the possibility of temporarily moving the Utica Comets (Canucks) Bakersfield Condors (Oilers) and Stockton Heat (Calgary) to Canada for the 2020-21 season. Nothing is finalized on that front.
What has been canceled already for the NHL?
Wyshynski: On Oct. 22, the NHL announced it was postponing the 2021 NHL Winter Classic scheduled for Target Field in Minneapolis. The Jan. 1 game was to feature the Minnesota Wild against the St. Louis Blues. It also postponed the 2021 NHL All-Star Game in Sunrise, Florida, that originally was set for Jan. 29-30. The NHL said it plans to return to both locations for these events “in the near future.”
Depending on the schedule, the NHL might have a midseason break for its players. Could that include an event that replaces the All-Star Game? Potentially.
The other outdoor game scheduled for the 2020-21 campaign is a Stadium Series contest on Feb. 20 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is to feature the host Carolina Hurricanes against an opponent yet to be determined. The league is keeping the door open to holding this event but potentially moving it to later in the season. While that is doubtful, that’s the reason it hasn’t also been postponed.
Was the NHL really going to try to play on a frozen lake in Alberta?
Wyshynski: Yes. The league scouted Lake Louise in Banff National Park as a site for an outdoor game, potentially to kick off the regular season. But that site proved untenable: As a National Park site, there are regulations against construction and on visible advertising.
The league is still exploring other locations that might allow them an aesthetically impressive vista for an opening day game without fans in attendance. The trick is to find a location where fans won’t be able to try to access the site to watch a game. In other words, while Central Park in New York City and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., have been mentioned previously as “low capacity” outdoor game sites, they might not be feasible for this venture.
“I think it’s a priority of ours to have big events as part of the 2020-21 season. I think that the uncertainty with respect to when we can start, and what form we’re starting in, presents challenges in terms of starting with a big event. Doesn’t mean we can’t do it; doesn’t mean we won’t do it. Just adds a level of uncertainty, which is something we have to navigate,” Daly said.
What’s the leading plan for the 2020-21 season?
Wyshynski: While Daly has pushed back on the idea that there’s a “leading plan” so early in the process, it’s clear that teams and players believe a “hybrid bubble” idea has the most traction.
Essentially, the NHL would group its teams into four different hub cities. One of them would be in Canada, where all seven Canadian teams would be grouped together due to the ongoing restrictions on travel at the border. The other three would be in the U.S., although not necessarily based on the exact geography of the teams in those clusters. (In other words, we could see some teams play outside of their time zones.)
Like the postseason bubbles, teams would be housed in hotels around those arenas, with frequent testing for COVID-19 and restrictions on access.
Unlike the postseason bubbles, teams and players would be allowed to vacate the hub and return home to see friends and loved ones during designated breaks in the schedule. The NHL is keenly aware that the players don’t want to do the “airtight” bubble thing again. The only way to get them to buy into the hubs is to ensure that they can travel to be with their families during the regular season.
“What we were able to accomplish for what ended up being an extended playoff tournament was about as far as I think we pushed that model. We asked a lot of a lot of people to be able to execute on that. And everybody bought it. And we had success in doing that. But to do that for any longer period of time than we did it? I don’t think that’s tenable,” Daly said. “Hopefully, we’ll never see that model again. So to execute a regular season and playoff tournament going forward, we’re going to have to adopt a different model.”
While there wouldn’t be “all-day hockey” like in the qualification and seeding rounds of the bubble postseason, there would be multiple games played each day at each venue.
So which cities are leading candidates to be hubs? Obviously, Toronto and Edmonton spring to mind for Canada, given the success the league had there for the playoffs. The U.S. cities will undoubtedly include many of the sites the NHL vetted during its search for return-to-play bubbles: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Pittsburgh. You might recall that Las Vegas was on the cusp of hosting a bubble until Nevada’s COVID-19 numbers spiked in early summer.
One challenge in the hub city idea could be accommodations. In the bubbles, the NHL was able to take over entire hotels, controlling access and limiting exposure to potential COVID-19 risks. Those hotels in Toronto and Edmonton were basically “reopened” by the league. But many hotels near NHL arenas are open to the public now. Not only will availability be a concern, local regulations on capacity are a factor.
If the NHL ends up using this option, sources say it would be a temporary one, as the goal is to get back to home arenas in front of home fans.
What are the COVID-19 risks to this plan?
Wyshynski: “Well, it’s clearly not as secure as what we were able to do in Edmonton and Toronto. But I do think the experiences that you’ve seen in baseball and you’ve seen in the NFL, while not perfect, obviously proved to be workable for those weeks, at least to this point,” Daly said. “So, again, it’s not the safest way to do this, but it also might be the most practical way to do it.”
Bogoch believes the “hybrid bubble” plan can be done safely but that it’s going to rely on a couple of factors.
“You probably need to rely on diagnostic testing before you enter that hub just to make sure that people are entering COVID-free when you enter a hub. You probably would need to have a couple of negative tests as well after you’ve entered the hub city. On top of that, it would really rely on buying in again from all the — not just the players, but anyone else who would be entering that modified bubble,” Bogoch said.
Bogoch points to “Phase 3” of the NHL restart last season, in which teams attended training camps locally in facilities with social distancing and access restrictions, as well as thorough hygiene and cleaning standards for COVID-19 prevention. When they weren’t in those facilities, they were basically trusted to not put themselves as risk for infection.
“You don’t want to be the person or the team that brings it into the hub. So that means that when you’re out of the hub, it means staying close to home. It means not going out to restaurants and bars depending on what the rules are wherever you’re living. It means not having house parties and means really laying low and avoiding getting COVID-19,” Bogoch said. “While you can create a safe rink environment, what’s important is what are these guys are doing in the other 18 hours of the day. We needed tremendous buy-in from the players and from anyone else to really lay low. But you know what? Everyone did the right thing. That buy-in really helped drive the success of the bubble.”
Bogoch wouldn’t rule out testing of players while they’re back home and outside the hubs but said that behavioral changes are the best option.
“You still have to drive behavioral change rather than be able to rapidly identify cases. You want to avoid people from getting this in the first place,” he said. “So it’s a comprehensive approach in which testing is a major pillar but not the only pillar.”
Are there other options for the 2020-21 season?
Wyshynski: Everything is on the table. That includes the possibility of starting the season inside local arenas and having teams travel on a traditional schedule, which is what MLB and the NFL have done. Sources acknowledge that this isn’t currently feasible for a variety of reasons, mostly surrounding local regulations on indoor capacity and travel challenges not limited to the Canadian border issue.
With a shortened season, could player contracts be prorated?
Wyshynski: Daly said that there hasn’t been a formal discussion with the board of governors about the impact a shortened season could have on player compensation.
Other leagues in Europe have already started their seasons. How does that affect the NHL?
Kaplan: First, I recommend you read this story by our colleague Chris Peters for a comprehensive breakdown on how the uncertainty of the NHL schedule impacts scouting and prospect development.
One of the biggest trends we’ve seen this NHL offseason is teams loaning their young players and prospects to European teams — so they maintain their conditioning and not spend too much time away from meaningful competition. So far, more than 100 players on NHL contracts have been loaned to clubs across 10 different European leagues. Some of the loans are for the entire season, while others are short-term loans — that is, the player will return to the NHL club once training camp begins.
Another thing to keep an eye on are loans for the World Junior Championships, a tournament scheduled to take place in an Edmonton bubble starting in late December. The Chicago Blackhawks already have told Team Canada that Kirby Dach can play in the WJC, as long as the NHL season hasn’t begun yet.
Finally, could NHL teams opt out of the 2020-21 season?
Wyshynski: It’s an interesting question, given what we’ve seen in other hockey leagues that are intending to play with varying levels of fan capacity. Five teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League have opted out. Two teams in the ECHL, so far, have opted out. The AHL has indicated that it’s unsure if all of its franchises will play in 2020-21.
But Daly said he isn’t concerned about any NHL franchise opting out.
“I don’t want to get into the legalities of it,” he said. “I will say that as a general matter, league initiatives are passed by votes of the board [of governors]. And votes of the board bind the entire board. But I want to take this out of that context and basically say, look, as a league, I think it’s certainly our objective to come up with a recommendation that involves all 31 of our clubs — or 32 if you include Seattle coming on board next year. And that will be our goal. I expect we’ll be able to achieve that goal.”
There are certainly going to be some franchises that have felt the economic impact of COVID-19 harder than others and some teams that aren’t keen on opening a new season without the chance to restart the revenue engines in their home arenas. But one thing is clear from both Daly and our sources: If the NHL is playing a 2020-21 season, it’s going to do so with all 31 of its franchises on board.