The NHL still has a lot of work to do before hockey can safely return

A lot needs to happen before the NHL season can safely resume.

There’s a famous proverb that says “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Last night, the NHLPA voted to authorize further discussions regarding the 24 team format for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If getting the NHL season to resume is a journey of a thousand miles, the huge first step just happened.

However, it’s merely one step. There are still a lot of steps ahead for the NHL if they want to resume play. The player’s association did not formally agree to the 24-team format, but on the bright side, it’s clear both parties are interested in returning.

What will those steps entail? Let’s take a look.

The Format

There are two kinds of NHL fans – those who hate the 24 team format and those who embrace it. Negotiations will continue and it sounds like there will be 24 teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, there are still several details that need to be hammered out.

According to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, one of the top concerns is the bracket itself. Will they move forward with the current bracket, which doesn’t have any re-seeding? Or will the league decide to make things a little bit more fair for the top four teams in each conference, who are getting a bye for the play-in round, and re-seed?

There are also still questions about the play-in round. Will more teams (maybe the top six teams in each conference or top three teams in each division?) get byes? How many games will each play-in round series have? Traditionally, postseason series have been best of seven, but there’s probably not time for that.

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Hub Cities

It’s obvious the league will not be able to have traditional “home” and “away” playoff games. Certain places, most notably New York City, simply can’t safely host postseason games. To counter this, the NHL will be having “hub cities”, which will host a certain amount of teams.

One big question is how many there will be. However, we might already have the answer. Discussions are quickly trending towards having two hub cities, with each conference being based out of one.

Obviously, the next question is which cities will serve as hub cities. The NHL is looking for cities with a reasonable population density, at least one hockey arena available for use (preferably more), and hotels right near the arena so they can keep the teams, players, staff members, and coaches safe.

Las Vegas has been tossed around as an idea. There are seemingly endless hotel options near T-Mobile Arena, so that’s a good start. Columbus, Ohio has emerged as another strong option. So has Edmonton.

The final question to be answered as far as hub cities is what will happen during the Stanley Cup Final. Traveling between two hub cities is probably not an option. At the very least, it would be a bit unsafe and tedious unless the two cities are very close to each other. That said, having two teams into one city and keeping them there would be relatively easy.

Health And Safety

This is by far the biggest hurdle the NHL has to overcome. Sports leagues around the world are slowly starting to continue to play, or at least starting to develop plans to come back. In South Korea, they have baseball. Recently, the Bundesliga, a soccer league in Germany, has come back. Coming back in North America, though, will be a far more difficult challenge.

While the UFC and NASCAR are having events, hockey’s an entirely different beast because it’s a team sport. The league will need to ensure the safety of over 500 players, coaches, and team staff members. Keep in mind coaches and trainers tend to be on the older side, which makes them vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

At the end of the day, everybody wants hockey to come back. But at the same time, it’s important to remember the players, coaches, and staff members deserve nothing short of a safe work environment. After all, they’re the ones assuming all of the risk here. If something goes wrong, they’re the ones who are going to pay for it.

Consistent testing will likely be demanded by the NHLPA, and rightfully so. Getting a ton of tests done seemed impossible as recently as a month ago, but it’s far more feasible now, though it could still present some issues.

Also, there’s going to need to be a clear plan of what happens if someone tests positive. The league is going to do everything it can to ensure everyone’s safety, but having a plan in case someone tests positive for the novel coronavirus is crucial.

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We likely won’t see hockey until late July at the earliest. But fans should be excited because it’s clear both the league and the players association want hockey to return. Now it’s time to see if it’s possible for it to return.

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