Gary Bettman worked late into the day on March 11 last year. When he arrived home that evening, the NHL commissioner received an urgent message directing him to turn on his television.
Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19. As Bettman watched, Utah’s game against the Thunder in Oklahoma City was delayed and then cancelled. Within a few minutes of that, the NBA announced the regular season was suspended.
The next morning, a meeting was convened with the NHL’s board of governors. As they met, routine game-day skates were scuttled, and players were sent home from arenas. Not long after that, the league announced its own pandemic-related work stoppage.
“Today, it is hard to believe that we’ve been at this for a year,” Bettman said Thursday during a video call with journalists. “In some ways, it has gone by in a blink of an eye. [In other ways], it seems to have lasted forever.”
When the 2020 season resumed in August, games were played without spectators and teams were confined to protective bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. Flash forward to 2021, and a limited number of fans are being allowed in fewer than half of the league’s rinks.
COVID-19 numbers have slowly started to recede in the United States and Canada and vaccines are being distributed, but there is no telling when normalcy will return.
“We seem to be headed in the right direction, and that trend has to continue” Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said Thursday. “News on the vaccine south of the border has been encouraging. The world keeps changing, and we’ll keep changing with it.
“Hopefully, sooner than later we’ll be getting large numbers of people into the buildings.”
There have been interruptions, but for most teams the abbreviated 2021 season is now at the halfway point. There is still no clarity over where games will be played this postseason, and if travel will permitted across the border.
“I’ve been accused of being a control freak, so having so many things out of our control is not my idea of a good time,” Bettman said while directing a light-hearted poke at himself.
Bettman said the ideal scenario would be for teams to hold playoff games on their home ice, but it is not clear if that will be feasible.
“I do hope the promises we made and the way things turned out with the bubbles last year will give us some credibility,” the commissioner said. “We were dealing with the here and now and we were able to do a lot under the circumstances. Our job was to power through while understanding health and safety was paramount.
“I’m not sure what we could have done differently or what more we could have accomplished.”
Bettman said the NHL remains in contact with medical authorities in each country, and has had several conversations with Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.
“From the start, we have been continually engaged with government officials on various matters from a health and safety standpoint,” Daly said. “We don’t always get the answer we want but we thank them for engaging with us.”
Bettman said it is unlikely that the league will continue with its current alignment next season. As part of the COVID-related changes, all seven Canadian teams are competing in a new North Division. That step was taken because limited travel is allowed between the countries, and quarantines are expected.
The schedule has seen the Canadian franchises play one another as many as 10 times.
“We did what we had to do this year,” the commissioner said. “We had no choice. I believe we may focus on more divisional play [next season], but I don’t envision this continuing.
“This is a unique season, but we would prefer to return to our traditional format.”
As of now, the NHL entry draft is scheduled to be conducted in late July. No date has been selected for the lottery that precludes it. The method used to rank teams in the lottery itself is unlikely to be changed significantly.
If all goes well, the 2021-22 season should begin at its normal time in early October.
Only a month ago, there were 59 players on the NHL’s unavailable/COVID list. Five teams had to shut down their training facilities and stop playing games.
As of Wednesday night, there were just four players on that list, and no games were postponed.
The biggest question is what happens next. Will teams be at home in the playoffs? Nobody knows.
“I don’t think there is any firm deadline if we have to make a change,” Daly said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do.”