The National Hockey League is targeting Jan. 1 for the start of the 2021 season, the league and the NHL Players Association said in a joint statement Tuesday.
The parameters of that season and the start of training camps are still to be determined. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said on multiple occasions that he hopes to get in a full 82-game schedule followed by a complete four rounds of playoffs to determine which of the 31 teams wins the Stanley Cup, which normally is awarded in June.
Whether that happens will be determined by the spread of the coronavirus throughout North America.
“I still anticipate playing a full 82-game season and a full playoffs,” Bettman said during a pre-Stanley Cup Final media conference last month. “My preference would be to stay out of summer as much as possible. It’s always been a goal to be done by the end of June. That’s what our fans want. We understand the issue. We don’t have enough information to make any decisions. Our goal is to get back to the greatest sense of normalcy as soon as possible.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars in six games to win the Cup in the Edmonton bubble this year. The competing playoff teams spent two months in confinement playing games without fans in Toronto and Edmonton. The league reported that not one player nor team staff member tested positive among the 31,000 daily COVID-19 tests administered.
Bettman said at the time that he had no way of knowing whether fans would be returning to arenas or whether the season again would start in bubbles. Everything would be considered, he said.
One of the major issues is that the NHL has seven teams based in Canada while the border with the U.S. remains closed. The Canadian government granted an exemption to the league after approving the NHL’s 2020 playoff bubble plan. Visitors to Canada must quarantine for 14 days, and the government is seeking to tighten controls as cases continue to increase.
As of Tuesday, the Canadians had 173,387 confirmed cases and 9,578 deaths amid a population of 37.6 million. That pales in comparison to the 328.2 million people in the U.S., which has had 7.5 million confirmed cases and 210,762 deaths, the most of any country.
“Anything that anybody reads or writes or commentates about next season is purely speculation,” Bettman said. “There’s no point in making any definitive plans because there’s too much we don’t know. Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the U.S. 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 us whether our arenas are going to be socially distanced or fully occupied.
“And we’re going to have to do the same thing we did about return to play: Explore all the options and be agile and flexible to implement when the appropriate time comes.”
To be sure, it’s going to be tough for the NHL to continue playing without arena revenue generated by fans. Like the National Basketball Association–and to hockey’s good fortune–when the season came to a halt March 12, 85% of the scheduled games had already been played with a commensurate collection of arena revenue from tickets, concessions, advertising and merchandise sales.
Bettman said that the financial state of the league is stable, but another season of even limited attendance would mean a hit. The NHL is going into the final year of a 10-year national television contract with NBC that pays the league $200 million a season, very low in comparison to the other major pro sports. Major League Baseball, for instance, earns $1.7 billion a year from various national TV contracts with over-the-air and cable television networks.
“Yes, there will be a revenue hit,” Bettman said. “It’s no secret that attendance affects at least 50% of our revenues. We know there’s going to be a shortfall depending on how many fans can attend, and that’s not in our control. We know it will be less. We know it will have an impact, but I’m comfortable our franchises will be able to weather this.”