NHL Maps Out Plan to Resume Play With an Extended Stanley Cup Playoffs Format

Commissioner Bettman emphasized that further details would be determined by Covid

an empty hockey stadium
While games may resume, they'll be played differently. Getty Images
Headshot of Mónica Marie Zorrilla

After doling out several social initiatives to abate fans’ hankering for action on the ice, the National Hockey League has given them something more to hold out for in 2020: a modified Stanley Cup Playoffs experience.

Both fans and players have wanted the NHL to complete its regular season after games were paused on March 12 due to Covid-19, commissioner Gary Bettman noted on a streamed announcement today. The Stanley Cup Playoffs air on NBC and the NBC Sports Network, which now has a huge hole in its schedule due to the cancellation of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The NHL’s plan could potentially welcome the return of hockey in time for when the Olympics would have occurred.

While the regular season will be abandoned as part of the league’s formal “phased return to sport” protocol, 24 of the NHL’s 31 teams will resume play in the summer and fall to compete for the coveted Stanley Cup title, as opposed to the traditional 16-team playoff format.

However, while the return-to-play plan may have been formalized, it is not necessarily finalized. Much of what Bettman said in the 15-minute announcement will only happen once the circumstances of the pandemic are evaluated and the league is given the go-ahead from experts.

“Although we are anxious to get back on the ice, we will not do anything until we are assured by medical officials and the relevant government authorities that it is safe and prudent to do so,” Bettman said.

The NHL laid out a four-phase plan and is currently in Phase 1. The league anticipates reopening training camps in Phase 3 no earlier than the first half of July.

Phase 4 participating clubs will report to their respective hub cities—one for the Western Conference and one for the Eastern Conference—and play will resume. All dates remain in flux given the circumstances and needs of players, so neither dates nor hub cities have been announced yet.

The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be assigned to a hub city with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation for players, coaches and essential staff. Each team will be limited to 50 personnel in the hub city, with limited support staff permitted in event areas. A comprehensive system of testing will be implemented in each hub city.

So far, the NHL has narrowed the choices for the two hub cities to a list that includes: Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton, Canada; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minn.; Pittsburgh; Toronto and Vancouver. Final determination will be based on Covid-19 testing and government regulations. These games will be “fanless” and played in a (mostly) empty stadium.

“I am certain that, depending on which team you root for, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer would be done differently,” Bettman said. “But we believe that we have constructed a plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have qualified for the playoffs when the season was paused.”

Emphasizing that no matter what happens, Bettman said a “worthy Stanley Cup champion” would emerge triumphant, and that the league would not begin to play “unless it is appropriate and prudent to do so.”

As fans continue to eagerly anticipate the modified season, the NHL has been feeding its hungry fans with loads of content to help them deal with the Covid-19 suspension. The league began uploading and streaming full replays of games up from the 1950s to March 12, 2020 on the NHL’s social media channels and official sites on March 20, in addition to a curated collection of NHL Original Productions content and behind-the-scenes programs and the league’s daily shows.

The league also rolled out a campaign in which players used the #HockeyAtHome hashtag to share their lives during the pandemic, clips from legendary speeches and a 2019-2020 greatest moments bracket-style fan poll.

In early April, the league released a video tribute from players and teams to fans who have been missing the sport on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The St. Louis Blues also livestreamed their “reunion” via videoconference.

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@monicroqueta monica.zorrilla@adweek.com Mónica is a breaking news reporter at Adweek.