Hopes of starting the 2021 NHL season Jan. 1 have all but faded, with the league and NHL Players’ Assn. now focusing their discussions on opening in mid-January, according to media reports published Friday.
The news hardly comes as a surprise after weeks of reported conversations between the NHL and union failed to produce a revised format for the upcoming season, which is expected to contain numerous structural changes amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Among the many issues that remain unclear are how many games each team will play (the original target of 60 reportedly has been reduced to between 52 and 56); how divisions might be realigned to account for travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada; the extent of safety protocols for players and teams; and how revenues will be distributed to owners and players in a year that likely will feature few, if any, fans at games.
During a Sports Business Journal panel discussion this week, Commissioner Gary Bettman hinted that the goal of starting on New Year’s Day was growing unlikely. Meanwhile, negotiations over salary escrows and deferrals spilled into the public, with player agent Allan Walsh taking to Twitter to criticize Bettman and the owners for allegedly proposing changes to an extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that the two sides struck in July.
A mid-January start would push the Kings’ and Ducks’ layoff to nine months, with neither team having played since last season was suspended in March. Both clubs finished among the bottom three of the Western Conference and failed to qualify for the expanded 24-team postseason.
While the 24 playoff teams are expected to be allowed to open training camps two weeks prior to the season, the Kings, Ducks and five other non-playoff qualifiers likely will be permitted to return to practice a couple days earlier.
For the NHL to have accomplished a Jan. 1 start, that would have required training camps to begin perhaps as soon as late next week — a near impossibility now given the fact some European players have not yet returned to North America and, in some markets, will need to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.