• First of two parts
Before the NHL drops the puck on next season, there are a truckload of questions that must be answered.
How many games will be played? Where will they be played? Will fans be allowed? If so, how many? Will divisions remain the same? What about the playoff format?
It’s enough to make your head spin right off its axis.
I’ll lay out a few scenarios below and throw in my two cents in case Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and the 31 owners would like a bit of free advice.
If the coronavirus isn’t under control when the season starts, there’s a strong possibility that Canada will not remove its ban on nonessential travel. This would mean Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa would form one division and play each other all season.
Three other eight-team divisions would need to be formed, meaning the Central Division may be comprised of the Blackhawks, St. Louis, Minnesota, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Carolina and Detroit.
Assuming a mid-January start — which is when the 2013 campaign got underway — a 48-game season seems to make the most sense. Teams would finish by the end of April and the Stanley Cup could be awarded in late June.
How to carry out this schedule is what the league is most concerned with right now. One idea that has gained plenty of traction is putting teams into four divisional “bubble hubs.” In the U.S. that means eight teams would be sent to three cities to play each other on a rotating basis.
“I’m open-minded to anything,” said Hawks GM Stan Bowman. “We have to be creative and have to be willing to try different things. The NHL demonstrated that (for the playoffs) by going to the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.
“This is something that certainly has never happened before and it was a unique situation. It proved it can work.”
For players who have kids, like former Hawks forward Brandon Saad, it’s important that their families be allowed to join them this time.
“I mean it could work, quite frankly,” said Saad, who was traded to the Avalanche in October. “I guess the biggest thing is keeping us safe. So if that’s gonna keep us safe, then that’s a good plan.”
When I asked Hawks captain Jonathan Toews what was the one thing he’d change about the league, he adamantly talked about how he’d fix the schedule to eliminate some of the needless, energy-sapping travel.
“It’s constant on the plane, on the bus, on the plane, on the bus,” Toews said. “Just for one game here, one game there? That’s frustrating.”
Well guess what? There’s no better excuse than COVID-19 to give this a try.
I would bring two teams into one city, then begin the season like this:
• Blackhawks host St. Louis Jan. 18, Minnesota on Jan. 20, St. Louis on Jan. 22 and Minnesota on Jan. 24.
• All three teams go to St. Louis where the Blues play the Hawks and Wild twice.
• Then the teams go to Minnesota. Rinse, repeat.
Next, do the same with the Hawks, Nashville and Colorado. Then again with the Hawks, Winnipeg and Dallas.
Boom. Half of a 48-game schedule is completed.
I’ll hang up and wait for my royalty check.
As for allowing fans? Don’t be surprised if the league green-lights a minimal number to start, then allows for a higher percentage of stadium capacity as time goes on.
“I’m sure they’ll come up with a smart plan that will keep everyone safe and I just hope that we’re able to have a full season,” said Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy. “(Hopefully) everything with COVID can calm down so we can get fans, feel a little more normalcy and get back to the hockey we want to see.”