What Exactly Does a Jan. 1 Start to the NHL Season Look Like?

It's too early to tell, but suffice to say it will be a lot different than normal. There could be short-term bubbles, a shorter season and a lot less revenue, depending on the availability of a vaccine.
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In the lead-up to the NHL draft Tuesday night, commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league and the NHL Players’ Association have targeted Jan. 1 for the start of the 2020-21 season. (Which would actually just make it the 2021 season, no?) He was short on details, just as he was when he informed the league’s board of governors prior to making the announcement.

Bettman also said the determination was based on “what we’ve learned and what we know.” It’s important to point that out, because clearly the league has been listening to the experts who have told them to wait as long as possible to start. Otherwise, the league likely would have started a month earlier.

So what does a Jan. 1 start to the season look like? With unrestricted free agents shopping themselves starting Friday, that’s a pretty important question. Nobody knows the answer, largely because there is so much uncertainty surrounding the status of the Canada-U.S. border and whether or not there will be a vaccine available. But the people who operate NHL teams have been running countless scenarios based on that uncertainty.

It’s almost assured that if the NHL does start Jan. 1, it will be in front of no fans. And it will once again look very different to what we’ve seen in the past. There could very well be short-term bubbles and a reconfigured league with one Canadian division and three American divisions. How long that lasts will be up to science and political will as far as a vaccine is concerned. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, one of Canada’s leading infectious disease experts who advised the NHL during the last return to play model, is encouraged by what he sees. Of the some 170 vaccines that are being tested around the world, 40 of them are in human studies and eight are in Phase III of those trials. The results of those trials could be known within another month or so, which would pave the way for the Federal Drug Administration and Health Canada to make a decision on whether or not to approve them. These vaccines are being mass-produced even though it has yet to be determined that they’ll be successful. The thinking is that if it does work and is approved, it will be ready to do an immediate rollout.

“At some point during the upcoming NHL season, there is going to be a vaccine that becomes available,” Dr. Bogoch said. “Anything can happen, like the trials could be a bust and we’ll have to wait for other vaccines. In a perfect world, there may be some vaccine rollout (by Jan. 1), but over the course of the season, it would not be outlandish to see increasing vaccine rollouts in Canada and the United States. It’s not inconceivable that a vaccine program could start somewhere in the world in late 2020, but they’ll more likely start to roll out gradually in early 2021.”

But, again, if you’re expecting a garden-variety hockey season in 2020-21, you’re probably going to be disappointed. There is one version of a season that is gaining traction, which would allow the league to begin Jan. 1 and finish before July 23, when its broadcast partner NBC will be televising the Summer Olympics – if they indeed end up taking place:

* The season would start with a series of mini-bubbles in which teams would come in for two weeks of games and play eight games over that period. One bubble would consist exclusively of the seven Canadian teams and the other three would be eight teams each comprising the American cities.

* After two weeks in the bubble, teams would go home for five days, then return for another two weeks in the bubble where they would play another eight games.

Teams would then finish the season with 20 games at home and 20 on the road, all within their own divisions, for a total of 56 games. Those games would be played much the way baseball series are held, with a team coming in to play a series of games against the same team.

Team presidents are also working on the model that Bettman suggested during the Stanley Cup final, with one-third of the season being played before no fans, one-third in front of socially distanced crowds and one-third to larger crowds. Regardless of how it shakes down, don’t expect this season to look like any of the ones we’ve seen before.

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