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Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL is looking at temporary realignment and short-term hubs for 2021

Yesterday, NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, offered up a few details about the upcoming season and what changes the league might have to do if they’re realistically going to make it happen.

This past summer, the NHL held what was undoubtedly the strangest Stanley Cup Playoffs in league history with all of the participating teams stuck in two hub cities for the duration of the tournament, which is something that Gary Bettman has already acknowledged will not happen again. So while the NHL is looking at whether or not it would be possible for teams to play in their own arenas, he also advised that the league is also exploring the idea of a hybrid system that would send teams into hubs for short-term shifts rather than extended stays as we saw in Edmonton and Toronto. What would that look like exactly?

“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without travelling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll 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’re talking about.”

During the presser, Bettman admitted that he would never ask for the players to return to a bubble scenario for an entire season despite the success regarding player safety that we saw during the playoffs, but rather that the league was looking for options that would allow for a season to take place while also avoiding prolonged periods of strict isolation. That’s easier said than done because of travel restrictions and quarantine periods, so one idea that has been batted around a bunch over the past few weeks has been the creation of a temporary all-Canadian division which would avoid major delays because of travel.

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“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 U.S.-Canadian border is an issue, we’re 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.”

When asked about the logistics of putting a season together with so many teams scattered all over the continent, Bettman admitted that a temporary realignment may make the most sense in getting this done, especially when you consider how different states have different rules.

“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’re better off, particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues.”

Bettman has said a few times over the past couple of months that the NHL is targeting January 1st as their preferred start and that the way the season starts could change as the COVID-19 situation progresses, but there is still a mountain of work that both sides need to work through before we can get there. Any return-to-play plan will require tremendous amounts of cooperation between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, and while Bettman confirmed that both sides are in regular contact, there haven’t been any regular meetings just yet. Regardless of where the conversations are at behind the scenes, the league and players have a laundry list of issues to work through if they’re going to pull this off and the new year is only a month and a half away.

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When asked about where the league and players are at in terms of getting a plan together, Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman gave his best guess on how this could play out:

“I think that there are a couple of things here, I do think that they’re going to try for January 1st. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to do it, it might be too ambitious but I think they’re going to try and do it. I’ve had some more people reach out and give me nuggets about what they’re hearing, and one of the things is that they looked at what happened in baseball. Baseball’s way was you start, get going, and adjust on the fly — you deal with what you have to deal with — and I think there’s concern that if hockey starts later and COVID interrupts the schedule, as we all assume at some points it will, the less time and runway you give yourself, the more you risk your season not finishing. I think that the league and the players understand that. I think the players are getting anxious and I think they want to play. There’s one big issue that they still have to sort out, but I think they’re going to want to start as early as possible because it gives you more runway to deal with the speedbumps that come. It also allows them to plan their season with a couple of weeks at the end where they can make up games that they might have to make up. If not, they could move the playoffs up.”

If you remember back to the summer, the NHL and players were able to get the ball rolling rather quickly when it came to finalizing a playoff plan and I truly hope that will be the same case here as well. But as I said earlier, both sides are also running out of time if they’re truly going to make this work in early 2021 and it’s going to be endlessly interesting to see how much progress gets made in the coming days and weeks. When it came to making the playoffs work, you’d have to think it was much easier to say that everyone was going to be locked in one of the two hub cities and that no one could come or go, but there are a lot more variables in this new scenario that will need to be sorted before anyone is able to drop the puck again. This time, they’re trying to figure out how to move around without sacrificing the safety of the players, personnel, and surround communities and that’s going to add another layer of complexity with more far more opportunities for things to go wrong. Will they be able to get it done? I certainly hope so, but as I write this latest update in mid-November, I have to admit that I’m starting to get nervous about the amount of work that still needs to get done with not much time to sort it all out. I want to believe that we’ll see hockey again soon, but we’re going to need all sides to get to work in the near future if that’s going to happen.

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As always, we wait.