The National Hockey League on Tuesday announced a “Return to Play” plan, which will see 24 teams compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Participating squads will begin in “hub cities.” The top four teams in each conference will have a round-robin tournament, while the remaining field of 16 enters a best-of-five-games elimination tournament.
Seven teams did not qualify, including the Buffalo Sabres. Playoff teams were determined based on points as of March 12, when the regular season was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hub cities and a start date have yet to be determined, though it’s expected play will continue into the fall.
NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico spoke with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Executive Director of the NHL Players Association Donald Fehr regarding the league’s formal announcement on the NHL’s “Return to Play” plan on NBCSN’s “NHL Live: Return To Play” special.
NHL on NBC analysts Eddie Olczyk and Patrick Sharp joined the program to provide analysis and reaction.
Following are quotes from Bettman, Fehr, Olczyk and Sharp:
•Bettman on round-robin format for top four seeds in each conference: “The theory was, and this was something we had discussed with the players, that they didn’t want to have to play a team that just came out of a qualifying series cold. They wanted some real competition and this was our way to do it. This again is from the ‘Return to Play’ committee that had five players on it. We felt collectively that this made sense to give them the bye, not put them at substantial risk, and give them some real competition. … We want those teams to not be disadvantaged by the bye, but not have a tremendous amount at risk because they did qualify with the best records in the regular season.”
•Bettman on hub cities: “The reason there are so many cities still in contention is we didn’t want to be in a situation with things in the world moving so quickly, changing from day-to-day, we didn’t want to get locked in. We don’t want to go to a place where there’s a lot of COVID-19, we don’t want to go to a place where we can’t get the testing we need and where there’d be extensive testing. … Health and safety is the most important thing, so there must be test available on a wide-scale basis without disrupting any medical needs. And there are governmental issues. Currently, we don’t think we could do this in the Canadian markets, because there is a 14-day quarantine. We are talking to the Canadian government about it, but if we get done with training camps and we want to go to a Canadian city and in order to do that we’re going to quarantine for 14 days, that isn’t going to work. … We’re probably three weeks or more away from having to make a decision, but I didn’t want to be in a situation where we locked into one place and something was going on there that might want to cause us to reconsider, so it’s great that we have all of these options.”
•Bettman on if latter portion of playoffs could be played in home cities: “Yes. It depends on what the world looks like. If you made me guess today, I think we’d be in one of the two hub cities, or conceivably a third hub city, but if things change dramatically and we have the ability to go back to the home markets … we anticipate playing without fans, but if at some point things change and we could, we would reevaluate. Everything we have been doing over the past 10-12 weeks was having to do with preparing for whatever might be in front of us. Having alternatives, having optionality, and making sure we were flexible enough to adapt to whatever was going on.”
•Bettman on role of economics in NHL’s “Return to Play”: “We played all but 189 of our regular-season games. We’re not planning this for the economics. The economic consequence of what’s going on has for the most part already been sustained and we’re feeling the impact. We’re doing this because we’re hearing from our fans overwhelmingly that they’d like us to conclude the season, they’d like the game back, it represents a sense of normalcy … that’s what’s motivating us. Yes, there are economic consequences to all of this, but in terms of the revenues at stake that are left to be earned, it’s a small fraction of what we would normally do in the course of a season. Our franchises and ownership fortunately have never been stronger, but it’s painful economically, because we’ve been trying to do the right things with our organizations and in the community, whether it’s food drives, donations. … Most owners in all sports are not as wealthy as they were three months ago, so this is obviously having a severe negative impact, but our franchises and ownership are in good shape.”
•Fehr on players health and safety protocols: “I think what we have done as best we can at this point is design appropriate health and safety protocols. If they need to be amended over time, we will amend them. This is a living document.”
•Fehr on his hopes of the NHL finishing this season: “I certainly hope that we can. I certainly hope that is the case. I certainly hope that all the necessary agreements, health and safety, and economic, and the rest can be finalized, so that they can take place. But I hope it is for another reason, because if we can, that would suggest that the world is beginning to return a little bit towards normal.”
•Fehr on protecting players and staff: “Can we satisfy that the health and safety of the players and the rest of the staff and everybody else that would be involved can be protected? And can the rest of the agreements we need to make be done? If you don’t have something you are planning, if you don’t have something you can work towards, then we are going to end up getting to a place in which we say, ‘All right, let’s go ahead,’ and we won’t be able to. So, you have to do this in stages. …
“As (Commissioner Bettman) said, there has never been any dispute that this can’t go forward unless the health and safety can be protected of everybody involved.”
•Fehr on biggest concerns of players returning to play: “How do you create a tournament which is fair or as fair as possibly can be done under the circumstances when you don’t have a finished season, and you have teams that had a chance to make the playoffs, but would not have qualified as a top-16 as of the day we shut down? Players were really concerned about the integrity of the tournament and still are.”
•Olczyk on the NHL “Return to Play” announcement: “What a great day for hockey fans and people that love this great game. A tip of the hockey helmet to Commissioner Bettman and (NHL Deputy Commissioner) Bill Daly for being transparent through this whole process.”
•Olczyk on 24 teams restarting play: “At the end of the day, they (the league) got it right. … You’re always going to have someone on the outside looking in, but this is uncharted territory. … I am fine with the way it is going to play out with the resume to play (format). …
“When you have this tournament format … with these players being off for as long as they have … this thing is absolutely wide open. It doesn’t matter what a team did three months ago, that’s out the window.”
•Olczyk on the potential Carolina-New York Rangers matchup: “If the Rangers would have went and made the playoffs (in a non-paused season), Artemi Panarin could have been a finalist for MVP. … You have two teams that like to get up and go, this should be a lot of fun.”
•Sharp on the potential Edmonton-Chicago qualifying round matchup: “I start thinking of the two best players in the game, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, whenever they are on the ice, you’re going to notice it. They are dynamic players to watch. … No. 88 (on Chicago), Patrick Kane, lives for these big moments. Seems like every time he’s in the playoffs, he wants the puck on his stick.”
•Sharp on the potential Pittsburgh-Montreal matchup: “Carey Price in the net is a gamechanger. … When you have Price in net making saves, you have a chance every night.”