With much of the talk centred around divisional re-alignment and a shortened schedule, while at the same time keeping in mind how successful the bubbles were in the NHL’s initial restart, the assumption was that the league would use some sort of hybrid system in order to stage the 2020-21 season, rotating teams in and out of hubs to control as many variables as possible.
Now it seems that’s far from a sure thing.
TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports following Thursday’s Board of Governors call that there’s now a “growing appetite” to see each team open their seasons in their home arenas, with the significant costs to secure these locations, plus the loss of localized revenue, being the key considerations.
The opportunity to have some fans in the seats — which the NBA is planning on and the NFL has managed to accomplish — might be as good of a reason as any to keep 31 venues open. That’s because the NHL spent in the area of $75-$90 million to run the Stanley Cup Playoffs out of two bubble locations, without seeing a sniff of gate revenue. Being able to eat into those losses, even if only slightly, through a portion of ticket sales and associated revenue streams, will, at least in the mind of the owners, offset many of the risks associated with opening more venue doors.
Of course, local health authorities would determine the extent of which fans would be involved, meaning several teams will be relying primarily on localized advertising, be it on the boards and inside the arena, or with local broadcasts.
However, while generating revenue is hugely important, it seems unlikely that we see teams taking considerable advantage of the chance to invite fans into their buildings, as cases rise across the continent.
Despite the possibility of many arenas opening, the NHL would still have to seriously alter the schedule, playing short series instead of one-off games as a step toward mitigating risk and reducing time away from families.
Per Seravalli, the one certainty is that that schedule will also shortened, lasting anywhere from 48 to 62 games. And at the moment, the All-Canadian division remains the only solution for the restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border.
Unlike the NBA, the NHL does not have firm plans on a start date. While the target date remains Jan. 1, it is exceedingly likely that it gets pushed back by a few weeks, or is delayed until February. The start date will likely determine the length of schedule with the Tokyo Olympics this summer serving as a bookend for just how long the NHL season can last.
If for nothing else, ending the season before the middle of summer will allow the NHL to return to a normal schedule for the 2021-22 season — assuming the COVID-19 pandemic allows for it.
More NHL coverage on Yahoo Sports