As the song goes: When will I see you again?
The 2019-20 NHL season is over in New York, a full year after training camp began. It ended when the Islanders were eliminated Thursday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who advanced to face the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.
The season ended in early August for the Rangers, when the Blueshirts bowed out to the Carolina Hurricanes in a three-game, qualifying-round sweep. And for the Devils, who were not invited to the NHL’s 24-team return to play bubble in Toronto, it ended way back in March, when the league initially paused its season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now that the NHL has successfully run a tournament in the COVID-free bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, and the league is on track to hand out the Stanley Cup sometime this month, the question NHL fans are asking is the one the soul band the Three Degrees asked in their 1974 hit single:
When will I see you again?
When the NHL announced its plans for returning to play to finish the 2019-20 season, it said it was working with a tentative date of Dec. 1 to start the 2020-21 season. But COVID-19 has not gone away in the months since the league made that announcement.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday he wouldn’t be surprised if the next NHL season begins after the tentatively planned Dec. 1 start date.
In his annual pre-Stanley Cup Final news conference, Bettman said there is still too much uncertainty to know what that season will look like. He wouldn’t address speculation about an all-Canadian division given the U.S.-Canada border closure to nonessential travel.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the focus would remain on the safety for players, coaches, staff and fans.
"If there’s an option to consider, believe me, we’re considering it," Bettman said
The league has repeatedly said opening training camps Nov. 17 and beginning the season Dec. 1 were tentative targets. Bettman raised the possibility of the season starting later in December or in January.
Asked about potentially not playing until the fall of 2021, Bettman expects a full 82-game season and playoffs.
"How and when we do that is something that we don’t all have enough information to make any decisions," Bettman said.
The U.S.-Canada border is a significant issue and has more of an effect on the NHL than other pro sports leagues because it has seven teams in Canada and 24 in the United States until Seattle is set to become the 32nd franchise in 2021. Canada did not allow Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays to play in Toronto this season because of cross-border travel.
Daly said the league can wait a certain amount of time until fans might be allowed in arenas but admitted, "I can’t sit here and guarantee that’ll be the case.’’ He also said it’s possible the league could start Jan. 1 and still play 82 games.
That might push games into the summer 2021, but Daly said this season’s restart proved the league can play games in the summer if it needs to.
However, he said, the NHL would prefer not to do that.
Bettman added, "How we start doesn’t necessarily relate to how we’re going to finish" and raised the possibility of starting without fans and evolving from there.
The league has held its entire, expanded 24-team playoffs in quarantined bubbles without fans in Toronto and Edmonton. Bettman said more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests have been done in that time with zero positive coronavirus test results.
MLB is playing games this season without fans, and has had games postponed because of outbreaks among teams. A handful of NFL teams are allowing limited attendance (the Jets and Giants are not allowing fans to attend games), as are some college football teams.
A few European soccer leagues are allowing limited attendance for their 2020-21 seasons, though the biggest, the English Premier League, is not (yet) one of them.
As with all things in the era of the coronavirus, however, all plans are subject to change.