NHL fans have been expecting the new 2020-21 season to begin on January 1st. At least that’s what Gary Bettman told fans back in October before the 2020 NHL Draft.

Here were his exact words speaking on NHL Network on October 6th:

“I think it’s fairly clear that while Dec. 1 has always been a notional date, we’re focused on the fact that we’re really looking now at January 1 to start the season up. Our hope is to have a full season, full regular season, and to have fans in the building, but there are a lot of things that have to transpire, many of which if not most of which are beyond our control before we can finalize our plans.”

As of now, it seems highly unlikely that the NHL will start its season on January 1st. There have been very few positive reports about the talks between the NHL and the NHLPA. There have been no announcements of a start for training camp. There isn’t even a schedule or modified conference format yet, as has been rumored for several weeks.

Here’s the latest on where the new NHL season stands.

Salary stalemate between NHL and NHLPA

You might recall that the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement last year to adjust player wages to make an “NHL Return to Play” happen. Necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, teams and owners lost most of their revenue stream, so they needed players to make concessions in order to play. They conceded and agreed to a deferral of their pay to the next season (2020-21) as well as some other escrow adjustments.

Now the NHL is asking the NHLPA for more deferrals, albeit a lower amount. But this time the NHLPA isn’t conceding.

That has led to a weeks long stalemate. Both sides are talking (though some have reported otherwise) but very little progress is being made.

Adjusted NHL schedule and conferences

If the league is able to return to play, it seems likely they will not play a full 82-game season. It also seems likely they would adjust the conferences to make a more travel friendly schedule, reducing the chance of exposure to Covid-19.

This would mean a dramatic shift in who the Nashville Predators would play for the upcoming season, of course. Here was one thought on what that temporary realignment could look like:

Bettman stated one of the likely outcomes of a temporary conference change is putting all Canadian teams together in order to bypass the USA and Canada covid protocol differences. But there are also differences between cities and states in the USA, so there would still be challenges.

There are also rumors that the scheduled would included more back-to-backs and possibly even “hubs” of teams playing together similar to the return to play back in August.

No schedule, no training camp date, no preseason schedule

As of now, there is not an NHL schedule for the 2020-21 season, nor are there any training camp dates or preseason games (which would be unlikely anyway given the circumstances).

It’s been reported that a 48-game season would be the most likely outcome for this season. Assuming a January 1st start date, the league could follow a similar schedule to the 2012-13 lockout and finish it’s season as usual with the Stanley Cup Final happening sometime in June.

But if a January 1st start doesn’t happen, that could obviously change. We could be looking at a late summer finish or even another “adjusted” playoff scenario like we saw in 2020. While the NHL Return to Play format was largely a success, the league would like to avoid another bubble scenario given how difficult and costly it was to pull off.

Is an NHL lockout or NHLPA strike looming?

The upcoming NHL season cannot be suspended due to a lockout or a strike by the players. This is forbidden by the current CBA. But that doesn’t mean a season can’t be canceled.

As Allan Walsh points out here, the CBA does include a “Force Majeure” clause which could end the season if there is an “extraordinary event or circumstance which prevents the season from being played.”

A logical reading of the CBA would say the league can suspend the season due to the pandemic citing the force majeure clause. Covid-19 is certainly an extraordinary event out of the league’s control. However, there’s a big problem with the league using that as an escape out of the current situation.

For one, they already proved that they can return to play during the pandemic. The 2020 playoffs happened and the Tampa Bay Lightning were rightfully awarded the Stanley Cup in September.

That proves an NHL season is possible.

If the league were to throw up its hands now, invoking force majeure amid the current financial situation, that might be seen as a misuse of the clause. It’s too convenient an escape for the league, when everyone knows the real reason for avoiding a season is financial.

It’s akin to a student trying to bypass his final exams by saying he is suddenly allergic to the paper the teacher has printed the test on. It’s just not going to pass the smell test with most people.

So when can we expect hockey to return?

The league is officially sticking by the January 1st date, which is now less than a month away. However, it would appear most teams are preparing for a later start, maybe in mid-January or February.

As long as the NHL and the NHLPA keep talking, that’s good for NHL fans. I don’t see a scenario in which the 2020-21 season simply doesn’t happen. They will likely make it work. But be prepared for it to look very different from years past, just like it looked different this past Fall.

— Featured image via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports —

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