COVID-19 ensures the 2020-21 NHL season, which begins Wednesday, will be unlike any other in league history.
Unlike the normal 82-game schedule, this year’s will last only 56 games from Jan. 13 to May 8. The playoffs begin on May 11 with July 9 the last possible date to award the Stanley Cup.
The 2020 playoffs were held in two host cities under strict quarantine conditions. This season, however, every team will play their home games in their own arenas. All but a handful will start the season without fans in attendance, with the intent of gradually allowing them back during the course of the season as COVID-19 cases (hopefully) decline.
Travel limitations imposed by the pandemic mean a realignment of the four NHL divisions for this season along geographical lines to reduce travel. With the border between Canada and the United States closed to non-essential travel, the seven Canadian teams will play each other in one division throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Critics question the logic of staging a truncated season during a pandemic. However, the NHL is a business, and it has to keep operating. It has broadcasting and advertising contracts to honour and employees who want to work. The team owners want to reduce their losses, while the players want to get paid.
Some observers wonder why they’re not returning to the hub cities format that worked so well during last year’s playoffs. The simple answer is the owners and players don’t want to do it again.
The owners need their buildings operating, even with few or no fans, to make some money from advertising and broadcasting. The players endured last summer’s hockey bubble but have no desire to be separated from home and family for five to seven months. Instead, the NHL is following the lead of the other major professional sports leagues that are staging their current seasons in their own cities.
No one involved in the 2020 NHL playoffs tested positive for COVID-19. Playing outside a bubble, however, increases the risk of players and team staff becoming exposed to the coronavirus.
The NHL has implemented strict health and safety guidelines, but players remain at risk. Six Dallas Stars players tested positive. The league closed the Stars’ training facilities indefinitely and is revising the club’s schedule, indicating the Stars’ first game won’t be until Jan. 19 at the earliest. They probably won’t be the only team whose games are rescheduled during the season.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks recently cancelled practices for precautionary reasons. Several teams have listed several players listed as “unfit to practice”, raising concerns they may have tested positive.
COVID-19 cases are rising across North America, but this is the risk the NHL is willing to take in a season that will be like no other.
Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer with Bleacher Report and runs the website Spector’s Hockey. His column will appear in The Guardian throughout the NHL hockey season.
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