The NHL will likely be divided by country next season, according to Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley.
In an interview with KSHP Radio in Las Vegas, Foley spilled the tea about what next season could look like, in terms of temporary realignment, fans in the stands, season length, and even when the Stanley Cup will be handed out.
If there’s a season at all, that is.
When asked by hosts Brian Blessing and Stevie Smith about trading defenceman Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks, a division rival, Foley explained why he wasn’t concerned.
“They’re going to play in the Canadian Division this year,” said Foley.
“I don’t think that border’s going to be open before January 1st. I really don’t. Cause Canada’s got spikes going on, they’re starting to lock down again. Winnipeg’s locking down. Quebec has got spikes going down. I think they’re going to play in a Canadian division. I don’t think they’re going to cross the border.”
With seven teams north of the border, the NHL could feasibly have a Canadian division for the regular season. It would be great for rivalries and fan interest, although it wouldn’t be ideal for travel, particularly the three eastern-based Canadian teams in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa.
The closed Canada-USA border has wreaked havoc on other leagues, often with teams from north of the border having to temporarily relocate in the United States. That was the case for the Toronto Blue Jays, who played last season in Buffalo, as well as Canada’s three MLS teams — the Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, and Toronto FC — who are hosting games in the US for the remainder of the season.
The NHL has a lot of options heading into next season, though it’s clear that players won’t go for a multi-month bubble again. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has set a target date of January 1, though Foley isn’t convinced.
“He’s talking about January 1st, I don’t know. Maybe February 1st. Maybe an abbreviated season and an accelerated season.”
Bettman has said that plans for next season haven’t been finalized, with decisions likely delayed so that the league can utilize all of the latest information available. Depending on how quickly science catches up to the virus, how the league starts may not be how it ends.
“There’s so much unknown,” said Foley. “We don’t know when we’re going to play, if we’re going to play. I know the Commissioner’s dedicated to having a season and awarding the Stanley Cup, but you can’t play in bubbles. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. You can’t afford it.”
The NFL and MLB have begun welcoming fans back to games at reduced capacities, in states that allow it. NHL arenas are indoors and have fewer seats than those other leagues, which isn’t ideal, though the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning were allowed to hold watch parties at their home arenas during the Stanley Cup Final.
The current rules in Las Vegas would allow the Golden Knights to have 10% capacity, Foley says, which would work out to be 1,750 fans at T-Mobile Arena.
“Everyone’s very nervous. We all thought that we’d probably be out of COVID by now, and we would have fans in the arena. So I think we’ve got to see what we can accomplish with partial fans. Forty percent. Fifty percent. Can we get that many people into the arena and have it be done safely? Can they all get tested with a nasal swab the day of the game?”
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told the Financial Post that he believes fans will return to his arena by February, and has mapped out a “safe seating plan” with 6,000 people in the 17,000-seat Canadian Tire Centre.
Foley believes that the NHL will play a 48- or 56-game season, which wouldn’t be unprecedented. The NHL has played a 48-game season on two occasions, both due to an owners lockout, with the season starting on July 19 in 2013, and July 20 in 1995. The Stanley Cup was awarded on June 24 in both instances.
We won’t see a September Stanley Cup Final next season, like we did in 2020, Foley says. The Golden Knights owner was adamant that the Cup will have to be handed out by about the end of June, due to the Summer Olympics, which is scheduled to begin July 23, 2021. NBC is the television rights-holder for both the NHL and the Olympics in the United States.
Though clearly, there’s still a lot left to be decided.