The NHL season will resume this summer, directly into playoffs that will be contested in two “hub cities” for the duration of the tournament, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tuesday.
Cities being considered as playoff hosts are Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton, Alberta; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minnesota; Pittsburgh; Toronto; and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Bettman said that health safeguards will be “paramount” and that each hub city will have a “comprehensive system of testing.”
The only people allowed in the arenas would be players, coaches and a limited number of support staff members of the participating teams, the league said.
“Things are evolving rapidly, and when we decide on locations, we want it to be on the best available information,” Bettman said.
“The final determination [of hub cities] will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing availability and government regulations,” he said.
Players will be allowed to meet in groups of no more than six early next month to begin practice for the renewed season, officials said Monday. The league was vague in naming any dates to start or end play, only targeting training camp to begin no later than July 1.
“There’s a reason we’re not giving you dates right now,” Bettman said in a virtual news conference Tuesday. “Anyone who is giving you a date is just guessing, and we’d like to take a more holistic approach.”
The league has worked with officials in the U.S. and Canada to allow players to travel to their teams’ cities if needed, although many will likely have to self-quarantine for 14 days as they travel between cities. During the tournament, players will be tested every night, with results ready before the players leave their hotels in the morning.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said during the virtual news conference that medical staff members are prepared for potential positive cases of COVID-19.
“One single positive test, depending on the circumstance, should not necessarily shut the whole operation down,” Daly said. “Obviously, we can’t be in the situation that there will be an outbreak and that will affect our ability to continue playing. But a single positive or isolated positive test throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end.”
That is part of why the league has yet to pick a host city — to create a “bubble” for its players, the league will wait to see how cases and testing look in each city in the coming weeks, Bettman said.
Teams and the players union have already agreed to the framework for a 24-team playoff, based on the standings as of March 12, which would serve as the season’s restart.
The last NHL games were played March 11, before the pandemic put virtually all of the world’s professional sports on hold.
In the postseason format announced Tuesday, the top four teams of the East (the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers) and the top four of the West (the St. Louis Blues, the Vegas Golden Knights, the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars) will play a round-robin competition to determine seedings for the next round.
At the same time, the next eight teams in each conference will be paired into best-of-5 elimination series, producing four survivors in each conference to meet the eight seeded teams.
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In the Eastern Conference, the best-of-5 matchups would be the Pittsburgh Penguins-Montreal Canadiens, the Carolina Hurricanes-New York Rangers, the New York Islanders-Florida Panthers and the Toronto Maple Leafs-Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the Western Conference, the best-of-5 matchups would be the Edmonton Oilers-Chicago Blackhawks, the Nashville Predators-Arizona Coyotes, the Vancouver Canucks-Minnesota Wild and the Calgary Flames-Winnipeg Jets.
The competition would then resemble a traditional Stanley Cup playoff, with 16 teams playing elimination series until a champion is crowned.
The conference finals and the Stanley Cup final would be best-of-7 matches. It hasn’t yet been determined whether the earlier playoff rounds will be five- or seven-game competitions, Bettman added.
The St. Louis Blues won last season’s Stanley Cup, the first championship in the franchise’s history.
Tom Winter contributed.