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Hamilton Take2: NHL weighing options to start new season

WGRZ Sabres/NHL Insider Paul Hamilton shares his thoughts on how the league is trying to overcome the challenges of starting a new season.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2012, file photo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman listens as he meets with reporters after a meeting with team owners in New York. The National Hockey Leage Players' Association announces its decision whether to terminate the current collective bargaining agreement and set the clock ticking toward another potential work stoppage in 2020. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — This week NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talked about options that could be available to the league in its quest to play the 2021 season.

Bettman seems to think that the NHL could get a season off the ground by January 1. That would mean the sudden spike in COVID cases would have to be reversed by then. Considering there would be no change in government policy yet, that seems like a pipe dream.

Bettman usually gets his way when it comes to these things, but I think he’ll get a lot of pushback from owners who do not want to have a season without fans. The question is can the league and teams come up with new innovative ways to produce revenue? Both ESPN and FOX want to get back into carrying NHL games and that could give the TV rights a huge boost.

The other thing that is going to provide all 31 teams with a big revenue boost is the new Reverse Retro Jerseys that are coming out for each team. Anytime there’s a new third jersey that hits the market, teams have trouble even keeping them in stock. I think this was a move that came about because of COVID and I also think it’s brilliant.

It's ideas like these that maybe can get us a NHL season even without fans.  

There is one thing that we know won’t work and that’s going back into a bubble. Yes, it did work to finish this season’s playoffs, but you can’t play a full regular season under the restrictions of a bubble.

Bettman said they could use hub cities where every 10-to-12 days, players would rotate in and out of the hubs. Once they finished, the players would go back home to their families for a week. Of course COVID protocols would have to be in place.

It’s also possible that teams will just play their home games in their own arenas.

There’s one thing against the NHL right now. The Canadian border is closed and some states have quarantine rules for people entering. If the league starts up in January, chances are good that the seven Canadian teams would have to form their own division and stay in the country. That would mean the Sabres would have no games against the Leafs or Montreal and would also not see Connor McDavid.

I don’t think they could have an Eastern and Western Conference and I wonder if you would play all the U.S. teams. The Sabres could join a division with Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, the Rangers and the Islanders.  

Would Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Colorado, Vegas and Arizona just stay out west? You could have a Midwest Division with Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis, Detroit and Columbus. You could have a South Division with Dallas, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville, Washington and Carolina.

Just because a season opened one way doesn’t necessarily mean it will end that way. What if the Abbott Labs rapid test becomes more available? The results would be on your phone and teams could have more fans in by scanning their phones. Would that open up the border?  Would the NHL pause for a week and make a new schedule with teams able to play the Canadian teams?

I don’t think the league will be able to play more than 48 games. The playoffs would have to be done by the time the July Olympics start because of TV.

The NHLPA has formed a committee of 16 players to be a part of this process. Flyers captain Claude Giroux is on that committee which is filled with longtime NHL veterans. The players have made it quite clear that they made huge concessions in escrow under the new collective bargaining agreement. The players expect to be paid their full salaries no matter how many games are played. I think that is a deal breaker as far as the NHL owners are concerned.

So I know Gary Bettman wants to find a way to play this upcoming season, but planning is going to be tough. If the rate of COVID infections doesn’t peak until January, I think there’s a very real possibility that things will have to wait until next October.