When the NHL and NHLPA resolved their disagreement over salary for the upcoming season, it felt like formalizing the 2021 season would not be far behind. But while discussions over money soon dominated headlines and put the coronavirus on the backburner, now both sides must confront the difficulties of trying to play a full season in the midst of a pandemic. The latest issue holding up talks is reportedly where exactly games will be played.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke via video conference on Wednesday on a panel at the World Hockey Forum. The panel, according to NHL.com's Nick Costonika, was on holding domestic and international competitions in the modern conditions of a pandemic.
"Right now, we're focused on whether or not we're going to play in our buildings and do some limited traveling or play in a bubble," Bettman said, "And that's something we're working on and getting medical advice on."
No one wants to return to a bubble. It was a grind for the players and was costly to the league. The preference is to play games at home arenas, but the viability of this is a serious question given the spread of the coronavirus. Of particular concern is the restrictions put in place by local authorities in some markets that would not allow for games to be played there.
"We have a couple of clubs that can't hold training camp or conduct games even without fans in their current buildings and facilities, and we're going to have to move them somewhere else to play," Bettman said. "If enough teams can't play, again, without fans, in their own facilities, then we may have to move more and more towards a hub."
The NHL was already considering divisional realignment for the 2021 season in response to the closed border between the United States and Canada. Though nothing has been finalized, Bettman confirmed on Wednesday that all games for the entire 2021 season would be played within the divisions.
The NHL has moved the target date for the start of the season from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1 to mid-January. A decision on where games will be played is going to have to be reached quickly in order to avoid pushing the start date back any further. While the desire may be to avoid a bubble or even playing in hub cities, that may prove to be unavoidable at the start of the season given local restrictions and health concerns.
"The biggest challenge is making sure that our players and supporting personnel are safe and healthy and making sure that we're not doing anything that puts the communities in which we're playing at risk either in terms of spreading COVID or taking medical resources, whether it's testing or vaccinations," Bettman said. "We understand what is vitally important to each community and to the health and welfare of each community, and we don't want to do anything that would interfere with that."