The National Hockey League has a start date for its 2021 regular season: Jan. 13. It has its end date: May 8. It has its Stanley Cup playoffs: 16 teams over the usual four best-of-seven rounds that should crown a Cup winner by the end of July, placing the 2021-22 season in a position to start on time in October 2021.
It also has four divisions this year, placing all seven Canadian teams in a unit called The North, just like the fantasy country in HBO’s phantasmagorical series, Game of Thrones.
The NHL and the NHL Players Association announced all this Sunday.
But where the games will be played is very much up for grabs as the coronavirus continues to ravage North America.
“Given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the league and union said in a joint statement, “the NHLPA and the NHL intend to be flexible and adaptable in their approach during the coming weeks to ensure compliance with directives from both local and national governmental and health authorities focusing on the health and safety of the players, other game-related personnel and the communities in which we play.”
“While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play,” said commissioner Gary Bettman.
The Vegas Golden Knights told their fans: “Attendance at T-Mobile Arena and a full schedule will be shared at a later date.”
The NHL has 23 days to figure it out.
The choices are simple: Travel and play the season in each of the 31 home arenas, as the National Basketball Association is attempting when it opens its season Tuesday night, or play all the games in four hub cities, hosting teams from each individual division. The NBA plans to open in Brooklyn and Los Angeles without any fans in the respective arenas.
“It is the current plan to play games in the home arenas of participating teams while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans,” the NHL said. “However, depending on prevailing conditions both in local markets and across North America, the League will be prepared to play games in one or more ‘neutral site’ venues per division should it become necessary.”
For sure, considering the pandemic situation at the moment in Canada, the seven Canadian teams will not be able to travel or play there, not with Toronto in a lockdown that may soon spread to the entire province of Ontario beginning on Christmas Eve. Montreal and the province of Quebec are also heading into an 18-day lockdown, closing all non-essential businesses from Dec. 25 to Jan. 11.
Toronto and Edmonton were the two bubble cities where the NHL resumed play this past July sans fans in the two buildings. The Tampa Bay Lightning ultimately defeated the Dallas Stars in six games to win the Stanley Cup.
None of the seven Canadian cities has hosted a game with fans since the NHL paused play along with the NBA and Major League Baseball this past March 12.
Anyone crossing the border from the U.S. to Canada has to isolate for 14 days, making travel and play between the two countries impractical.
“In reaching agreement on the format for the 2020-21 season, the NHL and NHLPA determined that the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border required realignment, and the League and the players also sought to minimize team travel as much as possible by shifting to exclusively intradivisional play,” the NHL said.
Other sports have had the same problem. In MLB, the Toronto Blue Jays played their home games during an abbreviated 60-game season at a triple-A ballpark in Buffalo. In the NBA, the Toronto Raptors are planning to at least open their home schedule in Tampa, perhaps sharing the Amalie Arena with the Lightning.
Right now, the San Jose Sharks will not be able to train or play in the SAP Center because of a lockdown in California’s Santa Clara County. The National Football League and San Francisco 49ers have also been affected, moving their final home games to Glendale, Ariz.
Training camps are slated to open Dec. 31 for the seven teams that didn’t participate in the bubble tournaments, and Jan. 3 for the rest of the NHL. There are no exhibition games.
Said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr: “During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much-needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”