If the NHL is able to return from its pandemic-induced pause, Gary Bettman says it will be “on some basis that is fair and has integrity.”
The commissioner spoke in a wide-ranging interview with Sportsnet’s Ron MacLean on Wednesday night, where they covered off topics from return to play, to league revenues and the draft as the league grapples with its new reality.
The NHL announced the league was pausing indefinitely on March 12 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic with 189 regular-season games remaining.
Asked about a potential model for a return to the ice, Bettman said the league has all options on the table.
“Which one of the plans?,” Bettman said. “We’re modelling, we’re trying to see what our options will be under whatever scenario unfolds. … The decision ultimately will be made by medical people and people who run governments at all different levels so we’re not going to try and do anything that flies in the face of what we’re being told is appropriate.”
Earlier Wednesday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the NHL had moved away from the single-city, non-NHL neutral site return plan.
Instead, Friedman said the league is now looking at one bubble city per division to complete the regular season, with one idea including daily triple-headers to wrap the games up quickly.
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Bettman said the league is starting to move away from a single-city, neutral-site solution to a different format where the league would have four bubble cities with full professional facilities.
“The particular location could be anywhere that isn’t a hotspot and has everything we need in terms of the arena and having practice facilities because if you bring in seven or eight clubs to a particular facility and you’re playing lots of games on a regular basis without travel there does need to be ice for practice.”
Reports from Sportsnet and ESPN on Wednesday said Edmonton, Carolina and Minnesota could be front-runners as bubble cities.
Alberta premier Jason Kenney confirmed he’s been in contact with Bettman over the idea.
“I did receive a call from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who wanted to ask some questions about Alberta’s status and combating COVID,” Kenney said in Edmonton on Wednesday.
“There was a very general conversation. We have not received a formal proposal of any kind.”
Bettman shot down the idea of using a college rink because it would lack the “back of the house” NHL arena facilities such as multiple locker rooms, video replay ability, proper boards and glass and a broadcasting area.
Ideally, Bettman said the league would be able to complete the regular season and proceed with a normal playoff format. The NHLPA has indicated its players would require at least three weeks of training camp before hockey resumes.
The NHLPA must approve the league’s plan for a restart.
“Clearly we can play into the summer, clearly we can play next season — which we intend to do in its entirety — starting later, so with a lot of timing options we have a great deal of flexibility,” Bettman said.
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Meanwhile, no decisions have been made surrounding the draft, which recent reports suggested could happen on its regular June dates as the league monitors this weekend’s virtual NFL draft.
One issue with that plan would be that the draft is typically a busy time for player movement, but trading before the playoffs would be problematic. On the other hand, a draft later in the summer would provide less time for teams to get their prospects up to speed before the 2020-21 season.
Bettman chose not to get into specifics on the economic impact of the league shutdown, but did say that the bulk of national TV revenue is accumulated in the playoffs, while regional TV money mostly came during the regular season.
“I don’t want to get into the economics, but lets be clear about one thing: we have no revenues coming in right now and that poses an issue not just in terms of how our system works with the players but the tens of thousands of people who work for clubs in all sports.”
There have been just two instances in the NHL’s history where the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded: the 2004-05 lockout, and in 1919 when the league had to halt play in the middle of the final because of the Spanish Flu.
Bettman said the league is looking at the pause through a long-term lens, with fans, and not money, at the forefront of conversations.
“We want to make sure that they’re comfortable, that we’re doing the right things for them as fans and for the game and for everybody associated with the game and that’s what’s motivating us more than anything else.”
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