TAMPA — Though the specifics about the next NHL season — and the Lightning’s defense of the Stanley Cup — haven’t been announced, Tampa could play a major role in the season’s structure.
The league hopes to start the season Jan. 1. And if hub cities are used, as they were in the postseason, because of the coronavirus — one of the most likely scenarios — Tampa is considered a major candidate to be one.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, deputy commissioner Bill Daly cited Tampa’s advantages as the bevy of hotels near Amalie Arena that could host teams and the appeal to players of spending the winter months in Florida.
“In terms of the boxes that need to be checked and the things that we’re looking for, certainly Tampa is an attractive possibility on a host of levels, including the fact that I think players would enjoy Tampa as a base for operations as opposed to some other cities,” Daly said.
“Certainly, if we went that direction (for hub cities) — and I’m not suggesting that we’re going that direction — but if we end up deciding to go that direction, certainly Tampa would be strongly considered.”
Beyond that, it seems unlikely the season will begin with fans in the stands because of the coronavirus pandemic. Canada’s continuing virus travel restrictions also make a hub situation a realistic scenario.
The Canadian teams could play in a hub north of the border, and the American teams could be divided into three in this country, possibly in a region format.
One wrinkle for Tampa is the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium. A game of that magnitude typically would fill hotel rooms across the area. But last month, the league said the game may be played with a reduced stadium capacity of around 20 percent because of the pandemic. If so, it would become less of an obstacle for the NHL.
“It’s definitely a relevant factor, for sure,” Daly said. “We’ve done due diligence on virtually all of our markets in this context, and that is an item that has come up and something we would have to deal with.”
During a normal time, a Super Bowl host city would block off approximately 20,000 hotel rooms for guests, sponsors and VIPs. But in the pandemic, the number of rooms needed will decrease. The game’s organizers expect a substantial number of rooms to open up. For example, Anheuser-Busch, one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors, announced last month that it will not host the roughly 600 guests it usually has at the Super Bowl.
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Because of pandemic effects, the NHL believes Tampa could handle the Super Bowl and hosting eight of its teams in a hub during the first week of February. Because one goal of a hub is to have only essential personnel to keep the teams as safe as possible, the number of hotel rooms the NHL would need would be a fraction of those for, say, a showcase event such as the All-Star Game, which would fill about 10,000.
And even if fans cannot attend games in the hub, the setup would be a boon for the local hotel and tourism market, which is still reeling from the virus and won’t benefit from a full-capacity Super Bowl, making it a case of right time, right place for Tampa.
Other potential hub cities include Anaheim, Calif.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Las Vegas; and Toronto and Edmonton, the hub cities for last season’s postseason. Tampa had been a hub city option for the 2019-20 postseason.
Regular-season hubs wouldn’t be the locked-down bubbles of the postseason because the players don’t want to be isolated again for two or more months.
“What we’re kind of thinking about with modified hub cities as a potential would involve players and teams traveling in for a period of time, playing a schedule of games and returning home for some off time, some family time, some practice time before repeating,” Daly said.
“It would be a model … with as many safety precautions as we can build into that to keep people healthy.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
What you should know about the upcoming NHL season as of now
• The league is aiming for a Jan. 1 start, but that could shift to Jan. 15 or Feb. 1.
• The players association and Board of Governors must agree to a return-to-play plan. As of Friday, the joint return-to-play committee hadn’t met, but the league and union have had daily discussions.
• There have been discussions about a two-week training camp that would start in mid December, with additional preparation time for teams that didn’t advance to the postseason in the return after the season was shut down March 12 because of the coronavirus, along with a conditioning camp for entry-level players.
• Playing a regular 82-game season is unlikely because the league wants to ensure that the 2021-22 season is traditional. The NHL also doesn’t want next season last beyond July 23, when the Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin. NBC is the U.S. rights holder for the NHL and the Olympics.
• Next season doesn’t seem likely to have fewer than 48 games.
• The league hopes to play in front of fans at some point next season, that’s unlikely to be the case to open the season. The Lightning and other teams are preparing their venues to host fans once they get approval. The league and the teams need ticket revenue.
• Canadian coronavirus travel restrictions aren’t expected to be lifted soon, so a hub-city format — with one hub hosting all the Canadian teams north of the border — seems likely.
• Hubs wouldn’t be the locked-down bubbles of the postseason, but they would operate with regular coronavirus testing and best-practice measures.
• The league would like to return to its traditional 16-team playoff format.