As the United States continues to accelerate the process of reopening the economy, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed Tuesday that the NHL is hellbent on being part of that process and finishing the 2019-20 season with a Stanley Cup champion. A day after the AHL canceled the remainder of their regular season and playoffs due to the Coronavirus, Bettman made it clear that he isn’t even considering doing the same.
“Not something I’m even contemplating,” the Commissioner replied to a question in a virtual town hall with San Jose Sharks season ticket holders on Tuesday night. “I believe that if the right time comes, and the right circumstances, based on all of the options that we’re considering and our ability to execute them, we’ll get this season done. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution. That means you stop working hard to do all of the things that we’re doing, and I ultimately believe that there will be an opportunity.”
The NHL and NHLPA recently ramped up its efforts to begin Phase 2 of its Return To Play process and Bettman cited the growing number of states lifting their stay at home orders and easing some social distancing restrictions.
“States are reopening, cities are reopening,” Bettman said. “And if we do the right things, I think we’ll be able to finish the season.”
The NHL paused their season on March 10 and while they were originally set on completing the remaining regular season games, the focus seems to have shifted to just returning to the ice for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. Three playoff formats – a 16, 20, or 24-game tournament – have been discussed with the 24-game scenario creating the most buzz.
“We would like to bring a conclusion to this season,” Bettman said. “It’s got to be fair, it’s got to have integrity, and if we have to do it over the summer on some modified basis, then we’ll do it on that basis.”
The biggest modification if and when the NHL returns will be that there will be no fans in the stands for the playoffs but as Bettman pointed out, with a likely later start to the 2020-21 season, likely in November and December, there’s a better chance the fans could be back when a new season begins.
“Obviously we hope to be playing in front of fans by next season,” Bettman said. “But if we finish in August or September, there’s no magic to starting in October anymore. We can start in November. We can start in December. You’re going to be a little flexible with the schedule, because we want to be able to bring the game back, both to conclude this season on some basis and to have a full regular season next year. If that means we need to be more flexible, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Rask and Chara Have Accepted Empty Arenas In NHL Return
Over the last two days, Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask and captain Zdeno Chara expressed disappointment that should they go on to win the 2020 Stanley Cup, they wouldn’t get the chance to share it with the fans but have accepted that new temporary normal.
“That’s what it’s going to be if we start, that’s for sure,” Chara replied when asked what the empty arena experience will be like. “We won’t be able to have fans in the stands. But you know what? It will kind of bring memories from back in the years we played as kids.
We didn’t have really any fans in the stands. I know once I came over to play juniors in the Western Hockey League I was amazed. There were five, six, ten thousand fans watching games but back home we didn’t have that many fans watching at all. So definitely, it’s going to be something different, something we’re going to have to get used to. But yeah, I guess that’s the only way we can continue to play at this point.”
Daly Cautiously Optimistic
In a one-on-one interview with Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was noticeably more careful with his words when discussing what might happen with the 2020-21 NHL season than Bettman.
“I wouldn’t go there,” Daly replied when asked when the season will resume. “We haven’t even moved into our contemplated Phase 2 yet. So until we do that, and from there, we have a training camp, I think it’s a little bit too early to be handicapping when we might be playing games. Certainly, I have a best-case and a worst-case in my mind, but that’s not something that needs to be shared publicly at this point.”
Edwards Not A Fan Of Expanded Playoffs Formats
Bruins play-by-play announcer for NESN, Jack Edwards, is not a fan of the NHL not finishing the regular season but if they have to jump right into the playoffs, he would strongly prefer the normal, 16-team format.
“If somebody put a gun to my head, I’d prefer 16 teams,” Edwards said on NESN After Hours Tuesday. “I would prefer to have an end to the regular season and to teams, to the best of their ability, to get back up to speed. If you’re 24th in the league by points or points percentage to get into the playoffs, you don’t deserve to play for the Stanley Cup.