11:25 AM EST on December 21, 2020
Hockey: when? It's the question that captivated two nations, as the NHL and NHLPA undertook steady and seemingly interminable negotiations to determine the wheres, the hows, and the whens of the 2020–21 season. It was frustrating to see basketball get up and running while hockey seemed to spin its wheels, but a negotiated restart is infinitely better than the alternative, which I guess would just be the owners ramming through whatever they want, mindless of the health and safety of the players and their families. And our patience has paid off with an answer. Hockey: soon!
Jan. 13, to be precise, with training camps beginning next week and, blessedly, no preseason games. It'll be a 56-game schedule with the regular season ending a little later than usual—May 6—and 16 teams making the playoffs. It'll all be done with an eye on holding a "normal" season next year, by which point hopefully we'll all be vaccinated and spitting in each other's mouths again.
The "tentative" plan, according to the league, is for teams to play in their home arenas; none of those regional "pods" that were bandied about as an idea. There will still be major concessions to the pandemic, though, and flexibility will be needed. The Sharks, because of restrictions in Santa Clara County, will hold their training camp in Arizona, and may have to play their early games outside of San Jose. The NHL, in its announcement, said that "most arenas will not be permitted to admit fans, at least initially," though there are exceptions already: The Dallas Stars plan to have about 5,000 fans in attendance starting on opening day.
The biggest change to this season, though, is the one-year-only realignment. There will be four geographic divisions, with teams playing only within their divisions in order to cut back on travel.
The Canadian Division is real! Even if it's called the "North." Constructed to avoid the difficulties of border-crossing pandemic restrictions, it'll mean more travel time for many of the teams within it, but it has multiple benefits for us. For one, it'll quarantine the NHL's mediocrities, allowing them to take points off each other and inflating their self-worth just in time for them to get crushed by mighty American playoff teams. For another, broadcasts will be shorter everywhere as just one national anthem will have to be played before puck drop.
But for my money, the best thing about the geographic divisions is a postseason bracket that promises rivalry matchups, possibly right up to the Cup Final. Here's how it'll work:
The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs. The first two rounds will be intradivisional, with the first-place team playing the fourth-place team and the second-place team facing the third-place team in the first round. The four teams that advance from the second round to the Semifinal Round will be seeded by their points total in the regular season (No. 1 vs. No. 4; No. 2 vs. No. 3).
The odds are quite good that we'll see some heated rivals facing off in the early rounds, and even if they're not historic enemies, the familiarity caused by playing each team eight times in the regular season could breed some new contempt by then. What really enticing is that, because the league's final four will be seeded by record, we could see a Stanley Cup Final between two teams from the same conference, something that'd be impossible under normal circumstances. Habs-Bruins for the Cup float your boat? How about Blackhawks-Blues? Avs–Red Wings? Leafs–just about anyone from the East?
The unbalanced schedule, the shortened calendar, and the potential of a divisional matchup in a Cup Final could make this season feel a little weird, but it is (hopefully) a one-off, and 56 games aren't even the fewest in an NHL season in the last decade. So this is a legitimate hockey season that won't come with an asterisk—unless a Canadian team wins it all, of course.