The NHL has turned its attention away from neutral sites and is focusing on restarting the 2019-20 season at league arenas, sources told ESPN.
Venues like the University of North Dakota were rumored to be under consideration for “neutral site” games in less-populated locations that weren’t as affected by the coronavirus pandemic as some NHL cities. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he had discussions with the NHL about hosting games at Southern New Hampshire University and that the option was “on the table.”
But NHL sources said the “neutral site” idea never got off the drawing board, due to problems with player accommodations, facilities for league and team staff, and the inability to bring multiple broadcasting crews to cover potential Stanley Cup playoff games. NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said there had been no discussions about specific neutral sites with the NHL either.
Instead, the league is looking at regional NHL arenas, aligned by division, where teams could potentially finish their seasons. Sources told ESPN that the current favorites are the home rinks for the Carolina Hurricanes (Metropolitan Division), Edmonton Oilers (Pacific Division) and Minnesota Wild (Central Division). A front-runner from the Atlantic Division has yet to emerge.
The NHL’s goal remains to finish the regular season, which had 189 games remaining when it was paused due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12. One concept would be to play multiple games throughout the day at these sites, like one would see at international tournaments.
As far as when a league restart could happen, Florida Panthers president and CEO Matthew Caldwell said Tuesday that the NHL has discussed resuming its season in the summer.
“The players right now are all quarantined. I know for the NHL, our players are quarantined through the end of April, and that will probably be extended into May. But when we are able to come out of the quarantine period, players are going to need time to work out,” Caldwell said on a Re-Open Florida Task Force conference call, as first reported by “The Andy Slater Show.” “I think all leagues are thinking about some training camp that we would do before the start of the season.
“So that’s going to take us into the June time frame. At least with the NHL, we’re trying to target some time in July. When we feel that players are safe and we have enough testing and we have enough ways to get back on the ice, for us it’s probably going to be contained at playing at four or five neutral sites. So that’s all being discussed right now. My guess is that we would start with limited fans or empty arenas. So just with the teams and the associated staffs.”
An NHL source said this plan was one of many discussed but pushed back on the notion that July was the target date, saying the league would open earlier if it could. The source said speculation that fans could return to arenas in a limited capacity for a season restart was premature.
The NHL has its players self-quarantined until April 30. Any format for a season restart would have to be approved by the NHLPA. Both the league and the players’ association have said that restrictions on travel, mass gatherings and nonessential businesses would need to be eased before the season could be restarted; beyond that, there would also have to be measures taken to ensure the health and safety of the players.
“We’ll follow the directions of the appropriate public health authorities. That goes without saying,” Fehr told ESPN on Saturday. “When and if they say — and, obviously, we hope it’s sooner rather than later — that they can declare it safe under certain conditions, we’ll adhere to those guidelines. The NHL has retained specific infectious disease specialists, as have we; everyone is working together. You will do everything you can to make sure it’s as safe as it can be. If there’s enough unreasonable risk, it’s hard to see coming back.”
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan contributed to this report.