Written by Chris Kubala
It’s been a long stretch of the calendar without team sports here in North America. The NBA and NHL both paused play in mid-March during a run that wiped out March Madness while opening day for major league baseball, The Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes were all postponed. The latter four have set new dates for them to inevitably take place but baseball remains in a holding pattern as they look to try and find a way to return to the field.
The NHL has made major strides in their efforts to return to the ice and more details are starting to crystallize as we look for official information about when the puck may drop again.
According to sources around the league, the NHL has narrowed down their choice of venues for the return of action to eight or nine cities at this stage of things. The current thought process remains to be a 24-team playoff field and leaving the remainder of the regular season, in addition to the teams that are on the outside looking in for the playoff picture, on the shelf for the rest of the year. There’s also the bone of contention of figuring out how the playoff field would be filled out. Under the six teams per division method, sub-.500 teams like Buffalo and Anaheim would get in the playoffs while teams with winning records in the Rangers and Blackhawks would miss out.
Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged that one of the current issues is the fact that 17 percent, or a full one-sixth of the league’s players, are overseas and have to return. The players that are overseas would likely face a 14-day quarantine once they made the trip back to North America. In addition to that, the border between the United States and Canada remains closed until at least June 21. This marked the second time that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau extended the border closure to non-essential traffic. It could prove to be a major impediment for a Canadian city to be a potential hub city for the postseason. Six Canadian teams were either in guaranteed playoff spots or would be in with the expanded field.
In another potential change, the league is reportedly looking at two hub cities instead of four, according to TSN insider Darren Dreger. There would be 12 teams hosted at each hub and could possibly be split up by conference. According to Bob McKenzie, Las Vegas could be a frontrunner for one of the hubs while Columbus is considered a potential option for the other. By sticking with a pair of cities in the United States, it would eliminate the issues of trying to bounce back and forth over the border in an effort to play. It also would remove the speed bumps of dealing with the governmental policies of multiple countries, as mentioned by SportsNet’s Chris Johnston:
“(The two hub idea), it’s just fewer governments to deal with, and fewer regulations to work with. When it was four cities, there was a good chance it was two in Canadian provinces and two in U.S. states.”
As it stands, there still are things to work out for the league to return to the ice. Currently, the league still doesn’t feel a need to rush into making a decision on when they get back to action. The league had been targeting an early July return to play date but a mid-July return date seems to be more realistic at this point. Commissioner Gary Bettman had this to say:
"I don't think anybody has a fixed timetable, particularly in North America right now. We have been working very hard since we took the pause on March 12 to make sure that whatever the timing is, whatever the sequencing is, whatever physical ability we have in terms of locations to play, that we're in a position to execute any or all of those options. There is still a great deal of uncertainty."
The two-hub proposal makes sense from multiple standpoints. It limits the number of venues that you have to deal with going forward. That also makes things simpler because you can play multiple games a day in a venue and simplify any potential restrictions. Once everything gets sorted out, it will all be worth it. It’s merely a matter of getting to that point and getting back on the ice. That’s what everyone wants at this stage.