The NHL has not finalized a model for resuming play after its regular season was paused on March 12 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But commissioner Gary Bettman outlined one plan during an interview with Sportsnet's Ron MacLean on Wednesday night, while also insisting that no final decisions have been made.
Bettman said the NHL is looking at a model that could include as many as four NHL cities hosting up to three games each day. He added that NHL arenas with practice rinks and at least four locker rooms would be preferable.
"The particular location could be anywhere that isn't a hot spot and has what we need both in terms of the arena and having practice facilities," Bettman said.
Still, Bettman's comments — coupled with those made earlier in the day by Florida Panthers president and CEO Matt Caldwell on a Re-Open Florida Industry Working Group conference call — give a much clearer picture of the NHL's thinking if play can be resumed. ESPN reported on Wednesday that a neutral site could be selected for each of the four divisions.
“The NHL is trying to target sometime in July when we feel that players are safe and we have enough testing and we have enough ways to get back on the ice,” Caldwell said. “For us, it’s probably going to be contained at playing at four or five neutral sites. That’s all being discussed right now. My guess is that it would start with either limited fans or empty arenas.
“This is not something a final decision has been made on,” Caldwell said, noting that the NHL’s self-quarantine period for its players and personnel has been extended through April 30 and the need for training camps likely would take the league through June.
Caldwell said that while not having fans in the arenas “is not ideal, everyone is willing to entertain that idea” as the fastest way to resume play. He added, “We’d love to get sports back on TV as soon as possible.”
Caldwell said Bettman has been giving the 31 teams weekly updates on efforts to restart the season. He also said the NHL and NBA, which paused its season on March 11, have been working closely together on that matter.
Bettman and Caldwell’s references to neutral-site games is different from previous speculation that the NHL was considering games at non-NHL facilities. Buffalo, the University of North Dakota, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Manchester, New Hampshire were all floated as potential non-NHL sites that could host games.
A source told Newsday that many facility- and infrastructure-related issues work against the idea of bringing all or multiple teams to a non-NHL location to resume games. These included the ability to house the large amounts of personnel — players and otherwise — that would be needed as well as the inability of non-NHL buildings to handle the technological requirements to broadcast games.
Plus, some of the non-NHL facilities speculated about were college facilities with Olympic-sized rinks as compared to the NHL-sized playing surface. Playing games on larger rinks apparently is not something the NHL is willing to consider.
Bettman repeatedly has said in interviews that “nothing has been ruled out, nothing has been ruled in” in terms of how the league might handle restarting play.
There were 189 regular-season games remaining when play was halted, and Bettman has said that optimally, the NHL would complete the regular season before starting the playoffs. However, he also has said that maintaining a full 2020-21 season is a priority.
No playoff format has been formalized.
The NHL is considering possibly holding its draft in June before play resumes.