The National Hockey League (NHL) announced its plans to start a shortened season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic next month after reaching an agreement with the league’s player association this weekend.
“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement Sunday. “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.”
The regular season will begin on Jan. 13 and end on May 8. Through the regular season and during the first two rounds of the playoffs, teams will play exclusively within regional divisions to minimize the distance they have to travel during the pandemic. Due to the inability of the league’s seven Canadian teams to travel to the United States to play games, they will play within a temporary division that will allow them to hold games against each other exclusively. Those seven teams — which are spread out geographically from Vancouver to Montreal — will play at a bubble site to minimize travel, though that site has not been selected yet.
Other divisions may also play in neutral sites, should pandemic conditions in team cities worsen. Otherwise, the league plans to host as many games as possible in the teams’ home venues, though much of the season is expected to play out without fans in attendance.
After an expanded playoff format was used in response to the pandemic last season, the NHL will return to its traditional 16-team, best-of-seven series format next summer, with the four teams that reach the conference finals being reseeded based on regular season record. The league finished last season in a bubble environment with 24 teams taking part in a brief seeding round followed by a best-of-five qualifying playoff round before the traditional playoffs began. The season ended with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in team history, defeating the Dallas Stars in six games.