NHL chew over using temporary hub cities


NHL preparing for the new season Image: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

The National Hockey League (NHL) while formulating plans for its 2020-21 seasons is mulling on playing a reduced schedule and using temporary hub cities. This piece of information was given by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recently.

The National Hockey League is a professional ice hockey league in North America currently comprising 31 teams: 24 in the United States and 7 in Canada. The NHL is considered to be the premier professional ice hockey league in the world, and one of the major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada.

Unlike the National Basketball Association (NBA), which recently confirmed plans to return to action on December 22nd with teams playing in their home arenas, the NHL is yet to decide on a format or start date for its 2020-21 campaign, although Bettman had earlier set January 1st as a target.

Speaking on a virtual panel during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit, Bettman said the NHL was not in favour of asking its teams to return to a bubble for an entire season. The ice hockey league completed the 2019-20 campaign in total isolation in Edmonton and Toronto (both in Canada), which meant keeping players away from their families for an extended period of time.

The Paley International Council Summit, often referred to as the ‘Davos of Media’, brings together global leaders and CEOs of the world’s most important media companies, to advance the exchange of ideas and to foster a sense of community.

However, Bettman said that using short-term bubbles is one option under consideration, along with permitting teams to play in their home arenas or using a hybrid format.

Added Bettman, “You will play for 10 to 12 days. You will play a bunch of games without traveling. You will go back, go home for a week, and be with your family. We will have our testing protocols and all the other things you need. It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we are talking about.”

Bettman, who had previously stated that how the season looks when it starts is not necessarily how it will finish, also admitted that the NHL might have to temporarily realign due to the current border restrictions between the US and Canada due to the grim COVID-19 situation, which prevent nonessential travel between the two countries.

Bettman asserted, “Obviously, we’re not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play. And while crossing the US-Canadian border is an issue, we are also seeing within the United States limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain States to other States. It’s again part of having to be flexible.”

He added, “As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we are better off, particularly if we are playing a reduced schedule, which we are contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues.”

Looking back on last season, Bettman also addressed the drop in television ratings that accompanied the NHL’s return to play. The Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lighting and Dallas Stars could not grab eyeballs and was the least watched edition of the champion-crowning series since 2007, averaging 2.15 million viewers across six matches on NBC, representing a 61 percent drop on the 2019 final.

Bettman believed that stands without fans were partly to attribute for it, which he said infused life into games and gets reflected on television. In addition, he revealed that NHL research indicates that while staunch supporters would watch the league at any time, casual fans were less inclined to watch in summer.

Bettman concluded, “And so that’s where I think a lot of the falloff came. And while we are in the middle of working on our return to play as well, which I hope to have put to bed soon, our goal is to get back to a normal schedule starting [next] Fall and being done before July on a longer-term basis. That is the goal.”

NFL contingency plan

Elsewhere in US sport, the National Football League (NFL) owners have greenlighted a contingency plan that will see the playoffs expanded from 14 to 16 teams if meaningful games cannot be played due to the COVID-19 menace.

The National Football League is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference.

The NFL has postponed – rather than canceled – quite a few fixtures this season and the proposed scenario would only happen if the league cannot complete its full 256-game regular season in 17 or 18 weeks.

The measure is only a backup plan, with the NFL still keeping fingers crossed that it will not have to extend the regular season past week 17, while it is still focused on having some spectators in the terraces for the Super Bowl in Tampa (Florida, US) on February 7th.

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