The Latest On The Start Of The 2020-21 NHL Season And The Leading Indicators For How It May Look

Photo: @Capitals

First things first, as it needs to be stated.

The NHL and the NHLPA have done a tremendous job in developing and executing a plan for the successful conclusion of the 2019-20 season. The fact that there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 since the 24 teams entered the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles back in late July is truly an incredible feat. There were certainly plenty of doubters when the plan was first introduced. Stick taps to all.

As we begin the Stanley Cup Final series between Dallas and Tampa tonight, attention is already beginning to shift to the start of the 2020-21 season, more specifically, when it will start and how it will be done.

Daley and Commissioner Bettman met with the media on Saturday for Bettman’s annual Stanley Cup Final press conference. Both Bettman and Daly would not speculate on what next season will look like, stating it’s simply too early to say.

The latest official statement from the league remains that the plan is to start the season no earlier than December 1, but no later than January 1. However, those dates may already be losing traction. Bill Daly recently stated that the later date is more likely. Reading between the lines, that date may also be in question, but nothing has been stated officially by the league as of yet.

Continuing Challenges

The challenges remain the same.

It’s going to be difficult for teams to be involved in any plan that requires crossing the U.S./Canadian border back and forth, or permits U.S. teams to enter Canada without quarantines.

The NHL needs for the border to reopen. On Friday Canada extended the agreement to keep the U.S. border closed to non-essential travel until Oct. 21 during the coronavirus pandemic, and that could be extended again in October.

Additionally, local crowd gathering restrictions continue throughout North America and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This will obviously be the key to seeing fans return to the game.

The Latest Speculation

There have been reports from behind the scenes regarding what is currently being discussed between the NHL and NHLPA. The latest thinking for the start of the next season continues to focus on bubble schemes, although the schemes are slightly altered to allow teams intermittent trips home during the season.

League sponsors seem to also be acknowledging the near term forecast, at least with regards to how the 2020-21 season may start.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun said that NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, a guest on LeBrun’s “Two-Man Advantage” podcast on September 9, doubled-down on the League’s plan to stick to an 82-game schedule for the 2020-21 season. Daly confirmed that a December 1 start to the season was less likely, and that a tentatively scheduled start date of January 1 is more likely.

However, LeBrun also said that the league had no interest in holding an entire bubble season, where all games would be played at a centralized and sanitized location, which conflicts with earlier reports.

Video: TSN

Bettman stated in his annual Stanley Cup Final press conference on Saturday that it’s possible the season may start differently than how it ends, meaning we could see bubbles and/or no fans to start, with fans possibly being integrated as the season progressed. Again, that’s only speculation.

Bettman did confirm that Seattle will enter the league as planned, regardless.

One thing that is known for sure is that a lot still needs to be figured out before the 2020-21 season can begin, and that’s a major understatement. In the interim, there are a few leading indicators that can give you a sense of how the sports industry is currently trending.

Leading Indicators And Who To Watch

It should be reiterated that the state of the pandemic can vary significantly by location, so straight translations to the NHL are really difficult to make. However, there are a few good general indicators in sports that may foreshadow the NHL’s start of the 2020-21 season:

QMJHL– The “Q” is planning to start their season in two weeks with fans allowed in the stands at a varying percentage of capacity, and have already begun holding exhibition games with fans in the stands. This will be a decent indicator of how indoor sports are doing in the coming months. More on the “Q”’s plan and the protocols being used for fans attending games can be found here.

KHL – The Russian hockey league is in the third week of their regular season, with no comprehensive limitations of fans in the stands. However, there have already been early issues, including forfeits and postponements, and two teams currently in full quarantine, but the league is soldiering on for now. Watch over the long haul, and if the KHL can manage to finish their season.

SHL/NSL – The European Leagues (Swedish, Swiss) are planning to return to arenas for this season, which will start in a few weeks. Exhibition games to this point have been played with a reduction in allowable attendance in place for most locations, with no significant issues noted.

NBA – Perhaps the best indicator and a league to follow closely during the preparations for the 2020-21 NHL season is the NBA, as their location, travel and arena requirements are very similar to the NHL’s. Right now the NBA is discussing multiple bubble scenarios, but they are also in the very early stages of planning.

General – With regards to outdoor sporting events, fans are slowly returning to their seats in the stadiums. Indoor gatherings and outdoor gatherings are apples and oranges when it comes to COVID-19, but one can surmise that the return of fans to outdoor events will precede indoor events, and will indicate current local trends.

The only fans in the stands for the 2020 postseason

Moving Forward

It’s likely we see a mix of things next season, possibly starting with a bubble scheme where teams enter for two weeks of games and then return home for a week, or a derivative thereof. It’s still to early to say.

It seems likely NHL owners will want to have at least the opportunity of fans returning at some point next season before starting up again. Will owners want to keep paying players when their revenues are plummeting? Would players accept pay cuts to keep the games going? Two big questions that will need to be answered.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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