(Reuters) - The National Hockey League will go straight into an expanded 24-team playoff format and all games will be held in two hub cities if action resumes this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday.
Bettman, in a televised address, said 10 hub cities are under consideration but he did not give a potential start date for the Stanley Cup Playoffs or say when NHL players can even return to team facilities for voluntary workouts.
“While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so,” said Bettman.
“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans are telling us in overwhelming numbers that they want us to complete the season if at all possible.”
Bettman also said he does not anticipate training camps opening before the first half of July, which means the playoffs, which typically run from mid-April to mid-June, could possibly not start until August.
The cities being considered to host playoff games without spectators are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
Bettman’s comments came a day after the NHL said in a memo to teams that it was targeting early June as the start date for Phase 2 of its Return to Play plan, which would include opening practice rinks for small, voluntary group workouts.
The 31-team NHL, which has 24 clubs in the United States and seven in Canada, has been in Phase 1 of its return-to-play protocol since players were advised to self-quarantine in mid-March when the coronavirus brought live sports to a standstill.
The final two phases of the return-to-play protocol would see full team training camps followed by a resumption of games.
FOCUSED ON SAFETY
When the NHL suspended play in March as part of efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus there were still three weeks and 189 games left in its regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs scheduled to end in June.
But Bettman said the regular season is now over and the NHL, when cleared, will instead get right into postseason action.
Under the unique playoff format, the top four seeds in each conference — based on points percentage from the regular season — will receive byes through a play-in tournament but would take part in a three-game round-robin to stay fresh.
The other 16 teams in the expanded field would compete in a play-in round featuring best-of-five series to determine the rest of the a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket.
First- and second-round playoff matchups could be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series, Bettman said.
Under the usual format, the NHL playoffs feature eight teams from each conference, with the Stanley Cup champion having to navigate four best-of-seven series.
Only twice before has the Stanley Cup not been awarded: in 1919 because of the Spanish flu; and in 2005 when the season was called off due to a lockout.
“While we are hopeful, it is our goal that we will be able to resume play and award the Stanley Cup. We intend to do so within in a timeframe that will enable us to get back to a full calendar for the 2020-21 season,” said Bettman.
“At the same time we remain focused on the safety of our players, coaches, support staff and arena personnel. We will not set dates, chose sites or begin to play until we know it is appropriate and prudent and we are approved to do so.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Additional reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Ken Ferris and Tom Brown
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