The Stanley Cup was awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning after the NHL was able to set up and maintain a bubble environment in Toronto and Edmonton. Following that, there was a sense of optimism that the next season would not face quite as many challenges as the 2019-20 season. Just a few short weeks afterward, that optimism appears to have faded, at least with Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley.
The NHL has maintained its desire to hold an 82-game season and commissioner Gary Bettman said at the start of the NHL draft that the league was targeting a Jan. 1 start. Foley, however, is not sound quite so optimistic.
"Well, who knows if we're going to be playing?" Foley said in an exclusive interview with KSHP Radio Las Vegas.
Since the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down the country in March, everyone has been wondering when life will finally return to normal. Now in October, we are still left to wonder that same question. The NHL has to be conscious of that and the restrictions there will be on fan attendance when planning for next season.
But, for some teams, continuing to play in front of empty arenas is not financially viable.
"If we're not playing to the fans, I don't know if a lot of teams can make it," Foley said. "Including us, it's going to be very difficult. You'll have to make a serious financial commitment to fund the team if we're not playing in front of fans. I do not believe Gary Bettman is going to have us fly all around and play in front of empty arenas. There's going to be another plan."
If fan attendance is that important, a possible solution would be to simply delay the start of the 2020-21 season until there is more clarity on when fans could return to arenas. But, as Foley points out, the NHL is not working with an indefinite time frame.
"They have to finish the playoffs by the end of June because the Olympics are in July and NBC has the Olympics," Foley said. "So we've got to be done with our season and all the playoffs sometime around the end of June."
Foley also said he's not sure about a Jan. 1 start date and believes we will see an "abbreviated season and an accelerated season."
"I think it's less than 60 [games], I do," Foley said. "I think it's 48 or 56. And it's going to be a lot of games quickly."
An added complication for the NHL is the fact that the league is dealing with two countries and, right now, Canada's border remains closed to most foreign nationals. That is a major issue for teams who have several players from other countries on their roster, for organizations whose prospects play for a team across the border and in terms of traveling across the border for games.
A possible solution to this that has been rumored is a "Canadian Division" in which the league changes its season format and all the Canadian teams are grouped in a single division.
Foley added some credence to that rumor by expressing his belief that the NHL will be forced into adopting this format.
"I don't think that border's going to be open before January 1st if it's open January 1st," Foley said. "I really don't because Canada's going through, they've got spikes going on and they're starting to lockdown again. ... I think they're going to play a Canadian division. I don't think they're going to be crossing the border."
That speaks to the heart of the real issue here, the unknown. We ultimately don't know when there will be a vaccine for COVID-19, we don't know when it will be widely available, we don't know when cases will subside in either country and we don't know when arenas will once again be able to pack the house to full capacity for sporting events.
But the NHL has to somehow come up with a plan to hold a hockey season among all the unknowns. It's a mammoth challenge.
"There's so much unknown," Foley said. "We don't know when we're going to play, if we're going to play. I know the commissioner's dedicated to having a season and awarding the Stanley Cup, but you can't play in bubbles. It's impossible. You can' do it. You can't afford it."