NHL ponders temporary realignment, travel hubs

NHL: Boston Bruins at New York Islanders

The coronavirus pandemic might spark significant changes for the 2020-21 season, including temporary realignment and the use of travel hubs as bases for multiple games, commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.

Bettman made his comments during a virtual appearance at the Paley International Council Summit that also included MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

The fact that border restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic will prevent teams from moving smoothly between Canada and the United States is one impetus for the proposed changes. The NHL also wants to limit teams’ potential exposure to COVID-19 without going so far as to introduce the complete “bubble” environments that were used to complete the 2019-20 regular season and postseason.

“Obviously, we’re not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play,” Bettman said.

He added, “As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues.”

Bettman said, “We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans (or) fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. 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.”

The league is aiming for a Jan. 1 start to the season.

“Our goal is to get back to a normal schedule starting (next) fall and being done before July on a longer-term basis,” Bettman said.

The NHL expanded its playoffs to 24 teams last season, but Bettman did not express support for maintaining that change.

–Field Level Media