NHL-League, union approve plan to start shortened season in January

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(Reuters) - The National Hockey League and union representing its players said on Sunday they formally agreed to launch a shortened season in mid-January that will conclude in July and allow for a return to a normal schedule for the 2021-22 campaign next October.

The 56-game regular season, down from the usual 82 games, will begin on Jan. 13 and be followed by a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs featuring four, best-of-seven rounds.

A typical NHL season runs from October to June.

"While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a joint news release.

The NHL and NHL Players' Association said they intend to be flexible and adaptable in their approach during the coming weeks to ensure compliance with health authorities given the ongoing unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two sides said the plan is to play games in each teams' home arena while understanding that most venues will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans.

Due to COVID-19 and the closure of the U.S.-Canada border, the league and NHLPA also sought to minimize team travel as much as possible and the season will shift exclusively to intradivisional play.

To accommodate this plan, the NHL's 31 teams will be split into four divisions - North, West, Central and West - including a seven-team, all-Canadian division.

Formal training camps will begin on Jan. 3. There will be no pre-season games.

"The players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and players alike," said NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr.

"During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice."

The NHL's 2019-20 season was suspended in March for nearly five months because of COVID-19. Play resumed with a Stanley Cup tournament played entirely in Canada and the champion -- Tampa Bay Lightning -- was crowned in September, three months later than usual.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar)