The NHL has kept its cards close to its vest when it comes to sharing details for the upcoming 2021 season, and for good reason.
Yes, the league and the NHLPA did announce in a joint release that it was setting Jan. 1 as a tentative starting date for a new campaign. But, based on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s comments ahead of the Stanley Cup Final last month, it appears as though any plans set in motion for a new season can’t entirely be set in stone, as the situation at hand with COVID-19 will necessitate a fluid approach when it comes to setting critical dates and building the framework of a drastically different league in 2021.
“Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States is going to be open by a certain date, nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be,” Bettman said. “Nobody can tell me whether or not our arenas will be able to have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings. And we’re gonna have to do the same thing we did to get ready for the return to play, explore all the options, be flexible and agile enough to implement when the appropriate time comes.”
Already, it appears as though that Jan. 1 deadline might be a necessary casualty as the league looks to find some semblance of solid footing in 2021.
In a radio interview with KHSP out in Las Vegas earlier this week, Golden Knights owner Bill Foley echoed some of Bettman’s sentiments when it comes to what the landscape might look like across North America come Jan. 1, with rising virus rates, attendance restrictions across most markets and border lockdowns prompting the NHL to take a step back and regroup a month or so later.
"I don't think that border is going to be open before Jan. 1,” Foley said. “I really don't. Canada has spikes going on and they're starting to lock down again. I don't think they're going to be crossing the border.”
Rather, Foley believes the NHL’s new season will start on Feb. 1, with the league having to make concessions in order to complete this shortened campaign before colliding with the planned coverage for the now-2021 Olympics in Tokyo. Olympics coverage will be broadcast on NBC — who also hold the rights for national hockey broadcasts (i.e. the Stanley Cup Playoffs) within the U.S. As such, Foley believes the league could trim the regular 82-game slate down to “48 or 56 games” — although that accelerated schedule could still be taxing over the course of this augmented season.
"If we're going to play 56 games over four months, that's a lot of games,” Foley said. “There's not going to be a break. There's going to be a lot of back-to-backs. In theory we're going to play four games a week to get this season done. Maybe even more -- five games a week.”
Playing the waiting game and hoping for clearer skies on the horizon might be a route that pro hockey must take, especially for a league that heavily relies on gate revenue. Presently, Foley noted Vegas can hold major events with 10% capacity filled — not nearly enough to save franchises from taking on major hits in terms of revenue.
“The NFL has such a great TV contract that they can survive,” Foley said. “We do not have that kind of contract. The NHL is a game-day activity. If you don't have game-day revenue, you don't survive.”
He added: "I think everyone is very nervous. I think we all thought we'd be working our way out of COVID by now and have fans in the arena. We have to see what we accomplish with 40% or 50% of fans. Can we get that many people into the arena and have it be done safely? Can they all be tested with a nasal swab the day of the game? Right now in Vegas, you can have 10% of your capacity. I have no clue how it's going to work. We need to get up to 40 or 50% attendance, and then we can come up with some kind of program where every other game you can go to, that sort of thing. But with 1,800 people in the arena? That's not enough.
But beyond Foley's candid thoughts when it comes to the harsh realities the league and its franchises face next season, Foley also let slip that, if and when the league does get off the ground, the set-up across the NHL could look very, very different — especially if the border between the U.S. and Canada remains closed.
When speaking about the scenario in which the Golden Knights would have to face off against their former defenseman in Nate Schmidt — dealt to Vancouver to clear cap space for Alex Pietrangelo — Foley didn't seem too concerned.
“Yeah, but they’re going to be playing in the Canadian Division," he responded.
If the U.S./Canadian border does indeed