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NHL return reportedly pushed back to Jan. 13

The league hopes to return, but local responses to the pandemic are their biggest hurdle.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 National Hockey League Draft at the NHL Network Studio on October 06, 2020 in Secaucus, New Jersey. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The NHL is now targeting a Jan. 13, 2021 return, for a 56-game season, according to a report from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski.

TSN previously reported that the league was looking at a “mid-January” return with a schedule of 52 or 56 games.

As the calendar changed to December, it was crunch time for the NHL to pull off a Jan. 1, 2021 start date, especially with most players in their off-season homes, spread across North America and Europe. Players will need not only travel time, but time to self-quarantine upon arriving in North America, to ensure that the players and their families aren’t carrying the coronavirus with them into a team setting.

There’s also the promise made to the teams who did not participate in the 2020 expanded postseason that they would receive an extended camp to factor into pre-season scheduling. That may not still happen if the season is pushed back, thus minimizing the advantage of players who were on the ice for a few weeks between August and September. Wyshynski further notes on ESPN that there are even contingencies for a potential February start.

Owners are pushing for teams to be able to open in their own arenas, as well. If the league were to stick to the Jan. 1 start date, the three teams in California would be unlikely to host their own camps, due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state. The Winnipeg Jets would also face difficulties with Manitoba’s strict regulations.

Two weeks might not make much of a difference in the end — after all, things have only gotten worse since March — but perhaps restrictions will relax enough to allow for teams to practice and perhaps play without fans, but right now, it still feels like a stretch.This current surge is coming in the aftermath of Thanksgiving gatherings. The NHL will be heading into camp after Christmas and around New Years — times when people gather, no matter how ill-advised.

Pushing back the season until February is a contingency in place in case it becomes clear the the NHL will have to use some sort of bubble system or “hub city” plan, to accommodate those teams who would not be able to open in their own arenas. It’s an unpopular plan, but unless things get drastically better quickly, they might not have too many options.

It’s not expected that most markets will allow fans in the arenas, but the hope is that they can begin to open as soon as they’re allowed enough capacity for it to make financial sense to resume full arena operations.