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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tyson Barrie and Arizona Coyotes right wing Phil Kessel battle for the puck during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday Feb. 11, 2020. The NHL is the first major league in North America to unveil a return-to-play plan.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The NHL announced Tuesday that it intends to return to the ice for a special 24-team Stanley Cup tournament after a months-long pause, but refused to give a hard timeline, cautioning that any action would be unlikely until at least the end of July or early August.

“Anybody who gives you a date is guessing,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during a press conference, explaining the league will take its cues from government and public health officials.

In making the move, the NHL becomes the first major league in North America to unveil a return-to-play plan after sports were halted in the middle of March because of the widening COVID-19 pandemic.

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The confirmation of the 24-team format means that six Canadian teams remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, the most since the spring of 1993, when six were still standing at the end of the full regular season. Only the Ottawa Senators are out.

Bettman confirmed the playoffs will proceed in two hub cities, one each playing host to the Eastern and Western Conference teams, with games staged for TV cameras but no fans in the stands. The cities will be chosen, likely within the next month, from a list of 10, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and seven U.S. cities, and will depend in part on how widespread COVID-19 is in each locale.

However, during the same news conference, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly warned that unless the Canadian government relaxes its requirement for incoming travellers to self-isolate for 14 days, “we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city.” He said the U.S. acting director of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, had recently “signed an order that made professional athletes essential,” to enable them to travel into the country.

On Tuesday, British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters the province should not bend its rules for NHL players.

Other stumbling blocks are still unresolved, including the fate of players who may feel wary of returning to play because of family complications or their own underlying health conditions. Bettman noted that some players have diabetes, and others have asthma, both of which could prove dangerous complicating factors for someone contracting COVID-19.

The league envisions it will be at least early June before teams will be permitted to return to their home facilities for small group training. Formal training camps could begin in the first half of July, with a puck drop anticipated perhaps three weeks after that. Players would be tested every night for COVID-19 once play begins, with results every morning before they depart their hotels for the rinks.

Still, hockey boosters were thrilled with the return-to-play scenario outlined by Bettman, even if, he acknowledged, any proposed format will leave some fans a little sour, especially of teams that were at the top of the standings when the league halted play on March 12.

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And he insisted the plan "will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”

Under the format, the top four teams in each conference will get a bye into the official first round but will play a round robin of three games each to determine their seedings. (Ties in the final standings of that round-robin will be broken by regular-season points percentage.) Those teams are Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia in the East; St. Louis, Colorado, Las Vegas, and Dallas in the West.

The remaining eight teams in each conference will face off in a best-of-five qualifying round series, to determine the final four teams that will advance to the official first round. It has not yet been determined whether the first two rounds of the playoffs will be best-of-seven series, as is the convention, or perhaps best-of-five.

The qualifying-round matchups in Hub City No. 1 (East) will be Montreal vs. Pittsburgh, Toronto vs. Columbus, New York Islanders vs. Florida, and Carolina vs. New York Rangers. Hub City No. 2 (West) matchups will feature Edmonton vs. Chicago, Winnipeg vs. Calgary, Vancouver vs. Minnesota, and Nashville vs. Arizona.

Bettman made the announcement online and on the TV networks that serves as the NHL’s broadcast partners: NBCSN and the NHL Network in the United States, as well as Rogers Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada.

He confirmed the 2019-20 season has officially concluded, blunting the faint hopes of some of its top stars that they could reach certain milestones, such as Boston’s David Pastrnak and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, who each had 48 goals, or Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who finishes with 47. Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl wins the Art Ross scoring trophy, with 110 points, becoming the first German-born player to get the honour.

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After his announcement, Bettman appeared for an exclusive interview on Rogers Sportsnet’s afternoon drive-time radio and TV show Tim & Sid, where he suggested the league’s push to complete the season was less about the dire state of the NHL’s economics than the desire to help hockey fans recover “a sense of normalcy.”

“If what we’re doing helps people feel a little more normal again and helps bring us back together – you know, it’s one of the things that we think sports does, it brings people together, it helps them heal from difficult times – but the money is not the … driver here. I mean, yes, the economic consequences of this are terrible, but finishing the season is more about finishing the season than it is about the economics – by a long shot.”

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