Where the NHL stands in its planning for the 2020-21 season


The NBA is aiming for a Dec. 22nd start to the 2020-21 season and is nearing a vote on the format, according to the latest reports. But while the NBA seems to be nearing a plan, there is still very little known about what the next NHL season will look like. That has not gone unnoticed.

"I was going to ask you about was about the Dec. 22 start of the NBA," Tony Kornheiser said on Tuesday in ESPN's Pardon the Interruption.."And as I wrote that down I said, you know what? Hockey starts by now. We haven't heard anything about hockey. We don't know if there's a schedule."

The Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup on Sept. 28. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned champions on Oct. 11. Yet, the NBA seems well on its way towards a new season and the NHL seems to be lagging behind.

What gives?

Here's where things stand in regards the 2020-21 season.

What's the latest?

The NHL announced its target date for the next season to be Jan. 1. Voluntary workouts have begun at some team facilities including MedStar Capitals Iceplex.

Those are encouraging signs. On the other hand, it is already November. We are two months away from the projected start and we still don't have a format for next season. There is a lot of work to be done in less than two months, enough that it is going to be tough to hit that Jan. 1 date.


What's the hold-up?

The NHL handled the return to play beautifully, but now it seems like it is falling behind the NBA. The reason for this is that the NHL is facing a lot more challenges than the NBA. First, the NHL is more dependent on fan attendance for revenue than the NBA. The NBA's television contract means the sooner you can get back to play, the better. For the NHL, however, it doesn't make sense to rush without any sense of when fans may be able to return.

This doesn't mean the NHL has to wait until fans can return, just that the league needs a better sense of when fans may return. Even if fans can't be back in the arena at the start of the season, that doesn't mean they can't later on.

In an ESPN article on the return to play, an NHL source is quoted as saying, " 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."

Further complicating things is Canada. While the NBA has only one Canadian team to think about, the NHL has seven. The Canadian border is closed for non-essential travel so teams cannot travel back and forth in and out of Canada to play games and it may even be a challenge for players just to report to their respective teams.

Relocating the Toronto Raptors to America is one thing, but you can't do that for seven NHL teams.

Is there any urgency towards starting the next season?

If the NHL needs fans in the stands and Canada's border is an issue so long as the pandemic persists, does this mean the NHL is just going to stand pat for the foreseeable future? No.

Besides the obvious disadvantage of losing fans by not playing, there is a big issue in the NHL season continuing to be delayed and that is the Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics were pushed a year due to the pandemic and are scheduled to take place from July 23 to Aug. 8.

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If you continue pushing back the start of the NHL season, you have to think about how many games you can play in a regular season and a playoff and still finish before late July. You don't want the Stanley Cup Playoffs to be up against the Olympics, especially considering NBC is a rights holder for both the NHL and the Olympics.

It should be noted, however, that the deputy commissioner of the NHL, Bill Daly, downplayed the Olympics as a major obstacle.

"I think there is some flexibility if we were to choose that route," Daly told ESPN. "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."


Still, it would certainly seem like a good idea for the NHL to avoid conflict here.

Getting back to the regular calendar also becomes difficult if the season extends beyond July.

What are the options?

Playing a bubble from start to finish is almost certainly not going to happen. We could see bubble sites in which groups of teams would travel to bubble sites, play a number of games, then return home for a short break before repeating the process with other teams at another bubble site. There is also the possibility of a Canadian division in which Canadian teams just play each other as a workaround to solve the border issue.

Again, however, whatever the league may look like at the start is no guarantee it will look that way throughout the season as the goal will be to get fans back in the stands as quickly as possible.

The idea that seems to be getting the most headlines, even if the possibility is remote, is the idea of not playing the season at all as reported by ESPN.

Per the article:

"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."

This is the story that caught PTI's attention. Michael Wilbon, in particular, thought the idea of not playing a season was a foolish notion.

"What we're seeing now is that if people are dislodged from their scheduling habits, meaning viewing habits, they may be dislodged permanently or sort of it's not exactly temporary," Wilbon said. "They can be dislodged for a while without appointment viewing. Does the NHL want to risk that? Doesn't this seem cavalier to you that even a small cadre of owners would be serious about that strategically?"

This is unlikely to happen so there is no need to really harp on it, but Wilbon is right in that it would be incredibly shortsighted. It's a tricky spot for owners to be in if they can't make money without fans, but looking beyond the immediate season, the effects of just punting on the 2020-21 season would be catastrophic. College football and the NFL are playing, the NBA looks as if it will have a season and, considering the MLB was able to pull off its season there's no reason to think they can't do it again. You can't have every sport but the NHL play and expect fans to simply return in October. Out of sight, out of mind.


The point of all of this, however, is to reflect that all options continue to be discussed. The NHL doesn't have a plan in place and is just keeping in secret, it is still actively working towards figuring out what 2020-21 will look like due to the myriad of challenges it faces.