As restrictions begin to lift, sports leagues are making plans for a return to normal life – or to life that is as close to normal as it’s currently possible to get. The biggest professional body to make a definite announcement is the National Hockey League (NHL), and for fans, this is as good as hitting the jackpot playing online pokies!
The NHL’s statement comes after NASCAR, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) publicised their intention to resume gameplay. Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are in talks with players’ unions and medical experts, and are expected to follow suit soon.
The Off-Season Advantage
Although coming back will prove challenging for all major sports, the NHL has an advantage over Baseball and Soccer in that Football season has not yet started. The NHL has more time to organise protocols and logistics and is scheduled to begin on time in September.
A few changes have been made to the structure of the playoffs, in order to buffer the effect of the games that were lost when the NHL was suspended on 11 March 2020. Rather than the usual 16 teams that make it the group stage will start with 24 squads, as recently approved by the NHL Players’ Association’s Executive Board.
Squad qualification was determined by teams’ point percentages at the time of the season suspension. This gives more teams a shot at lifting the Stanley Cup than is usual in the NHL playoffs. For instance, the New York Rangers are the Eastern Conference’s 11th seed, and would normally be eliminated.
Two hub cities will host the Eastern and Western Conferences, which will all be televised. Whether fans will be able to attend the live events, is yet to be announced. The shortlist of hub city candidates includes Dallas, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto.
Voluntary training will begin in early June, if local ordinances allow, and official NHL training camps will resume on or after 1 July. The season will conclude with the presentation of the Stanley Cup to the new champions. Each team is permitted to bring 50 employees back in total. This number must include players, coaches, club officials and medical practitioners. All staffers health will be monitored and tested throughout the process to ensure they are not positive.
Return Season Structure
Both Conferences’ top four teams will get a first-round bye and play a conference-based round robin. That means the East’s Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, along with the West’s St Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Nights and Colorado Avalanche, will play three games each to establish the top four seeds.
The other 16 teams will go against each other in a best-of-five series, which will decide which eight of them will go through to the second round. The losing eight will be entered into a draft lottery, along with the seven NHL sides (the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators) that did not qualify for the playoffs. When the regular season was suspended, each of them had around a dozen games unplayed.
At this stage, the format of the second round is undecided, and discussions on reseeding versus bracketing and a best-of-five versus a best-of-seven round are still in progress. The Conference and Stanley Cup finals will have their usual best-of-seven formats, and are likely to be played in the hub cities that are chosen.
Plans May Change
When the NHL issued a memo on Monday 25 May that detailed safety and testing protocols for what it termed Phase 2, and League Commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the stages that would follow on Tuesday 26 May, they made it clear that the plans are provisional and subject to change.
The NHL Players’ Association has also stated that although it is in agreement with the League on the plans that have been announced, amendments could be made before play starts again. These edits could be to the health and safety protocols collaboratively designed by the Players’ Association, the NHL and medical experts. A few financial matters must also still be finalised in talks before the playoffs commence. Bettman added that the League’s primary concern remained the safety of all employees. As such, it has made no final decisions on dates or sites. Like the rest of the world, the NHL understands that as much as they might want life to return to normal, conditions are unlikely to be exactly as they were before the outbreak. In almost all activities – sports events included – adaptations will have to be made.