NHL commissioner Gary Bettman officially announced Tuesday that the league has finalized its return-to-play format, which will feature 24 teams — 12 in each conference — and include a play-in series for the bottom four seeds in the East and West. It's an encouraging first step as the league slowly prepares to make its return.
"Our fans are telling us," Bettman said, "in overwhelming numbers they want us to finish the season if it's possible."
But there are still many obstacles to overcome before play actually resumes.
In a 29-page memo issued Monday, the NHL outlined its plan for Phase 2 — voluntary small-group training activities, both on and off the ice — but was vague on the potential start date — "early June" — and did not share details on how long it could last. It remains a fluid situation, but the goal was to at least put parameters in place and get players prepared to safely make their way back to their respective NHL cities when necessary.
The next major hurdle the NHL and NHL Players' Association faces is ironing out the logistics of hub cities — each conference will be assigned to one location with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and local transportation — and COVID-19 testing. That presumably must be agreed upon before the league transitions into Phase 3, which is the opening of formal training camps and is not expected to happen before July 1.
"The timing of our entry into Phase 3 will be determined by medical and civil authorities," Bettman said. "While we are anxious to open camps as soon as possible, we don't envision doing so before the first half of July."
The final step is Phase 4, in which the participating clubs will report to the respective hub cities for each conference-based round-robins, qualifying rounds and Stanley Cup Playoffs. Where and when that will occur remains to be determined, but Bettman confirmed Chicago is one of 10 potential cities under consideration as a hub.
Based on the timeline provided, the best-case scenario appears to be a late-July, early-August restart. While it's not guaranteed hockey will return, Tuesday provided some positive news for hockey fans as the NHL officially put a bow on the 2019-20 regular season and moved into the next stages in hopes of awarding the Stanley Cup at some point in the fall.
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