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Four burning questions about the upcoming NHL season

There’s still a lot to be determined about what this season might look like, but decisions must be made soon for the season to start on time.
Lightning fans inside Amalie Arena in Tampa cheer as they watch the presentation of the Stanley Cup in September in Edmonton.
Lightning fans inside Amalie Arena in Tampa cheer as they watch the presentation of the Stanley Cup in September in Edmonton. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2020
Updated Nov. 12, 2020

TAMPA — We’re less than eight weeks from the NHL’s projected Jan. 1 regular-season start date, and there is still a lot we don’t know about what the season might look like.

Here are four burning questions concerning the upcoming season, with some help from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

When will we know the season format?

Daly told the Times on Friday that the clock is ticking on making the projected Jan. 1 start a reality but said he believed the league had “a couple more weeks” to finalize a format, get approval from the players association and present it to the league’s board of governors.

“I do believe that in order for us to start on Jan. 1, I do think decisions need to start coming together,” Daly said.

Trouble is, there’s still so much up in the air and coronavirus numbers in both the U.S. and Canada are going in the wrong direction, which complicates matters and makes a regular-season start in a hub-city format most likely.

Players don’t want another bubble, and owners want a plan that eventually puts fans back in the stands. Some owners reportedly proposed canceling the season altogether, but that doesn’t seem likely. The NHL needs to play, though Daly said there’s no firm deadline for a start date.

“I don’t feel like we’re working against any deadline, per se,” he said. “If the season doesn’t start on Jan. 1, it will start on Jan. 15. It’s not that time-sensitive where we’re up against deadlines. Having said that, I think we’ll continue to try to move the puck forward and try to make advances toward an ultimate decision.”

How much time will players have to prepare?

To start the season by the beginning of the new year, Daly said the league would want to have plans finalized and facilities open for players to start preparing by early December (which is just three weeks away).

That would take into account a two-week training camp and allot additional time for teams that didn’t return to play after the pause, and potentially a conditioning camp for entry-level players before camps start.

In September, the league set offseason training guidelines that allowed teams as of mid-October to open their facilities for small-group workouts of no more than 12 players a week after receiving notice from at least five players that they wanted to begin offseason training. The Lightning’s facilities are open.

When will fans be allowed to attend games?

The Lightning have been preparing for the return of fans and await word from the league on when they can. The team allowed just under 2,000 season-ticket holders into Amalie Arena to watch the Stanley Cup games, which served as a test run for how to socially distance fans in the seating bowl, move people safely in and out of the arena and utilize online purchasing to prevent crowded concession lines.

Amalie Arena has been refitted to meet all coronavirus facility standards, utilizing $2.4 million in CARES Act funding for improvements that include bipolar ionization for the arena’s HVAC system, backpack sanitation units, touchless ticket scanners and plexiglass barriers for queue lines and concessions areas.

The arena is again booking live events for the new year, including Christian pop artist TobyMac for two performances in mid-February that will be capped at approximately 2,000 tickets to allow for social distancing.

The league also wants fans back in the stands, and part of the delay in finalizing a season format seems to be that it was hoping the situation with the virus would improve. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case. Daly said last week that the league hopes games can be played in home arenas by the beginning of the 2021-22 season but offered no promises for the upcoming season.

“Our objective going in was to put ourselves in a position where we could maximize the ability to welcome fans back to games,” Daly said. “I can’t say that the world at large is cooperating with that objective currently, so we have to deal with that reality and we stay on top of what the local restrictions and regulations are in each of our 31 markets.”

How can players remain safe without a bubble?

Players spent two months away from their families isolated in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton this past postseason, something the players association won’t want to do again. In those bubble cities, hotels opened for the purpose of housing teams. With cities in various stages of reopening, it’s no longer possible to house players in a real-life bubble like before.

Daily testing likely will continue, and teams will remain as tightly isolated as possible. But it will be more like in other sports, since players and staff will be more responsible for reducing the risk of exposure. While the NHL and NBA bubbles proved effective, MLB and the NFL have struggled with cases without complete isolation.

“It’s not going to be entirely locked down where there’s no possibility of interaction with the outside world, which was the concept of the bubble cities,” Daly said. “Here, it’s going to be much more recommended best practices to limited interaction, to keep the arena secure and to minimize risk.

"It’s going to be a different model, for sure, if that’s the way we go at all.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard

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