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NHL still unsure where they can actually play games

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Despite the hopeful Jan. 13 season start date closing in, there are still significant problems to figure out.

2020 NHL Stadium Series Press Conference Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

It looked like false hope anyways. As soon as the reports came rolling in of the NHL hoping to start its 2020-21 season on Jan. 13, an empty sense of expectation rushed over me. As we all do, I just want the league back so I can spend most of my nights enjoying their product, but considering that there are still major questions left unanswered and the days ripping away from the calendar, nearing that expected start date, it looks like we’ll be left without the NHL for a little bit longer.

Commissioner Gary Bettman took to a panel called “Holding Domestic and International Competitions in the Modern Conditions of a Pandemic” at the World Hockey Forum in Moscow, to divulge the current plans the league has. While he did mention that he hopes to start the season in mid-January, he also brought to light many other problems that have been unsolved.

In terms of playing within a bubble — as they did during the 2020 postseason — for the season, he is still unsure.

“We don’t think we can conduct an entire regular season that way,” Commissioner Bettman said. “But circumstances, depending on where COVID[-19] is spiking and where the medical system is being taxed at any given time, may require us to adjust.

“So, for example, we have a couple of clubs that can’t hold training camp or conduct games even without fans in their current buildings and facilities, and we’re going to have to move them somewhere else to play.

“If enough teams can’t play, again, without fans, in their own facilities, then we may have to move more and more towards a hub. It may be that some teams are playing in other buildings. It may be that a whole group of teams have to play in other buildings.

“One of the things that we’re doing for the regular season, as we’re planning it, is we’re going to just play within our divisions, so we’re not going to play every team against everybody else in the course of a season.”

Credit where credit is due. Bettman appears to at least have a smidge of concern for the public health system of where the 31 teams exist. But there is still the problem of outbreaks popping up all over this continent and the idea of teams travelling within the reconstructed divisions, still doesn’t appear to be the safest option. Hell, the Vegas Golden Knights and Columbus Blue Jackets were struck with positive cases just as they opened up their training facility to players not too long ago.

This is stuff we’re fairly used to by now. The idea of hub cities and entire leagues in bubbles have been discussed and in practice for the past several months. And while we talk over the theory of limiting contact and preventing crossover that eventually turns into infection, it’s just that, talk. It’s another thing to put some ideas into reality and see how it works out.

The NBA — as Bettman also mentioned on the panel — is going ahead with their seasons and have scheduled out everything, redesigned their season and relocated a team in the Toronto Raptors, down to Tampa Bay, for now. They appeared to get everything in order, and while they still experienced some positive cases as players and staff began their preseason, they went ahead and began to play in some ghoulish form.

The NHL at least appears to be going about it in a different way.

Asked for the biggest challenge facing the NHL, Commissioner Bettman said, “The biggest challenge is making sure that our players and supporting personnel are safe and healthy and making sure that we’re not doing anything that puts the communities in which we’re playing at risk either in terms of spreading COVID[-19] or taking medical resources, whether it’s testing or vaccinations.

“We understand what is vitally important to each community and to the health and welfare of each community, and we don’t want to do anything that would interfere with that. But everything that we’re doing and working on with the Players’ Association starts with keeping the players and the communities in which we play safe and healthy.”

Either this is a testament to the NHL, that they are taking it more seriously and the idea of a similar outbreak like the NBA had — 48 players tested positive as soon as camps opened — is something horrific to them. Or the league is just so mismanaged that they have taken so much of their time trying to renegotiate the CBA and figure out the economics of the new season, instead of the health concerns, that they are just walking into the scheduled start date without a clue what to do.

I want to believe the first part of that paragraph more than the first, but it’s difficult. We heard so many reports of economic talks between the NHL and NHLPA, that the significant problem of where to play the games, was put on the backburner.

As case numbers skyrocket and daily death tallies rise, it’s hard to not view wanting a hockey league to return to action as a selfish and blind desire. Trust me, I would do a lot to see Travis Konecny shine that scheming grin at an opposing player right now, but there are bigger problems to figure out. I just hope that this is the reason why the NHL appears to be taking its time with everything, rather than an extreme lack of care.