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NHL planning their next season

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The Board of Governors will discuss it on Thursday.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Sunday, November 8 was the last possible day for arbitration hearings, so now that the NHL calendar of events has hit an end for the offseason, and there’s only one thing to be decided — when does the next season start?

As recently as last week, Bill Daly, Deputy Commissioner, repeated the January 1 date as their target. Because the NBA has agreed to begin the next season in late December, the NHL was asked to assure people that they weren’t planning to go earlier than January 1. And it needs to be emphasized that they have always referred to that date with the qualifier “as early as.” In other words, it’s fairly likely next season starts later than that.

On Tuesday, November 10, Gary Bettman made some announcements ahead of an expected Board of Governors virtual meeting on Thursday of this week.

He said the NHL is exploring concepts involving short-term hubs, divisional realignment and reduced schedules.

None of these things are decided. None of these concepts have even been discussed with the committee of NHL and player representatives, as that committee is yet to meet. Most of these ideas would require amendments to the CBA, and therefore a vote of the full player membership is the endgame.

There is not going to be a “bubble” season like the NHL playoffs, however. From NHL.com, this is the concept as described by Bettman:

“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days,” Commissioner Bettman said in a virtual panel discussion during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit. “You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. 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.”

And of course, the border issue just isn’t going away. The USA has a higher daily case count now than they did in July when the Canadian government turned down a plan by the Blue Jays to play in Toronto. While the Calgary airport is running a program of rapid testing in lieu of 14-day isolation, there is no guarantee that will be in place across Canada for a hockey season in January. The NHL is absolutely considering an all-Canadian division.

If this all sounds familiar, it is. These are all the same rumoured and leaked ideas the NHL has previous treated as speculation by reporters, and largely sought to disclaim. One reason the NHL is very determined to make a season work sooner rather than later is that they don’t want another ratings hit. Contrary to several poorly sourced and badly researched articles claiming sports broadcast ratings are down because of liberal politics, Black Live Matter messages or kneeling, the NHL’s research showed this:

One, fans in the stands give games energy that comes through on television, and some of that was missed.

Two, research showed that that while avid fans would watch the NHL at any time, casual fans were less inclined to watch in the summer.

“And so that’s where I think a lot of the falloff came,” Commissioner Bettman said. “And while we’re 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.”

The next step after the Board of Governors is to get that committee to work, and head towards an agreement with the players.

The NBA chose to start their season in December for the same reason the NHL wants to get going in the winter, but for the NBA, the traditional Christmas season games are a big ratings boost. In 2018, the games drew fans in numbers not seen since 2011. The NHL, however has two separate television ecosystems to satisfy, and in Canada, competing head-to-head with the WJC in the Edmonton bubble (December 25 to January 5) seems like a less than ideal way to build buzz for the return of the NHL.

They gain nothing by starting earlier like the NBA is doing, and that idea was always a bit silly. On the other end of the spectrum, trying to have training camp over the Christmas holidays is not a recipe to get votes from the NHLPA membership. We shouldn’t be surprised if January 1 is closer to the start of camp than the season.

Nothing discussed by Bettman this week is a plan yet. It is all still at the idea stage, and he always emphasizes that the league has to adapt to changing realities, so they may start with one structure and end with another.

QMJHL

The NHL is not the only league trying to operate this winter. The QMJHL is adamant about having a 60-game season, and the shutdown of some of the teams in Quebec’s Coronavirus redzones is derailing that plan.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the games played in the league ranged from 10 - 12 for the teams in Atlantic Canada to two for the Quebec Remparts. They’re running out of time for the Quebec teams to catch up.

Leafs prospect Mikhail Abramov with the Victoriaville Tigres, has only four games played (with eight points) so far.

To solve that problem, the QMJHL will hold a bubble tournament from November 17 through 27 in Quebec City. Seven teams will play 21 games.

Each player and staff member will be tested before entering the controlled environment, and then tested again every three days once in the bubble.

[Commissioner Gilles] Courteau says the cost of the event has not been finalized, but each of the seven teams will help cover the expenses and the league will absorb any extra costs through its operating budget.

Four Quebec-based teams have seen players and staff test positive for COVID-19 since the QMJHL season began at the beginning of October.

There will be no fans at these games. If this works out, they may have to repeat it if Quebec continues to have Coronavirus cases increase, and more areas move into the redzone designation which prevents games from taking place.

ECHL

Equally adamant to play as if there is no reason at all not to, the ECHL announced some critical dates. The ECHL has split their teams into two halves, with the first set to begin play on December 11. No virus testing, mitigation or other health and safety information has ever been released. A few teams opted out of this season from that first group.

The rest of the league (which includes two teams in Canada) is set to begin on January 15. For those teams, they are scheduled to begin training camp on January 1.

The ECHL has never clarified if the teams will be icing rosters without AHL-contracted players or not. Normally, AHLers on two-way AHL deals are cut from the AHL training camp and play in the ECHL. No AHL training camp schedule has been released and that league does not plan to play until February 1 at the earliest.

ECHL contracted players are always on one-year deals, and many teams never have a full roster without the AHLers filling out the ranks.

The ECHL plan is to begin their playoffs on June 9 after a full season.

The Newfoundland Growlers, have six players signed to contracts for the coming season. It is, of course, not clear how the team could participate since they would need to follow, not just the Canadian rules for the international border, but conform to the Atlantic bubble rules in place to restrict travel to Eastern Canada.

The ECHL dates do not include the deadline to opt out of this season.