The seven teams who won’t be participating when the NHL restarts its season with a 24-team playoff format might not see the ice again until December, which appears to be the likely target date for training camp for the 2020-21 season if the Stanley Cup is not awarded until early October. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman even floated a trial balloon that next season could start with the Winter Classic, the Jan. 1 outdoors game between St. Louis and Minnesota at Target Field in Minneapolis.

Bettman never says anything off the cuff, so that’s clearly what he’s thinking might happen. Assuming that’s the case, is that going to be a new normal for the NHL?

A Jan. 1 start, which would have the Cup final pushing toward August, seems extreme. But the coronavirus pandemic is going to force the league’s calendar to get moved into different places, and it might be better for the league in the long term.

I have long been a proponent of an earlier start to the season, cutting down the preseason to open the regular schedule around Sept. 20 so that the Cup final is wrapped up by Memorial Day. This entire situation has given me pause to rethink that position.

My feeling now is that the NFL and college football, especially in SEC country, have become immovable behemoths, and it’s in the best interest of the NHL (and the NBA) to try to avoid going head-to-head with football for as long as possible.

I would not be a proponent of an annual Jan. 1 start to the NHL season, but I probably wouldn’t start much before Nov. 15 either. You could essentially miss going head-to-head with the entire regular season of college football, as well as the World Series and anywhere from nine to 11 weeks of the NFL season. And if you push the start until around Dec. 1, you’d miss even more football.

The later you start, of course, the later you finish. And while it’s expected there will be no All-Star Game or bye week in the 2020-21 season, you have to assume those will return at some point. The Cup final now regularly finishes in mid-June, with Game 7 last year in Boston coming on June 12.

It’s reasonable to think the NHL is willing to consider going well into July in the future, especially when its American television rights deal is up after next season. A split package between NBC and ESPN, much like the NBA does with ABC and several cable networks, would make sense, and ESPN could get some key games in slower months like June and July.

In the past, concerns have been raised about making ice during warm summer months. It’s clear the league no longer has those worries, given how it does its own ice making for its outdoor games and brings supplementary equipment to arenas hosting later-round games and the Stanley Cup final. There have been few complaints about ice in recent Cup finals, including the 2018 games in Las Vegas that saw outside temperatures rise to more than 100 degrees.

Players from teams that go deep into the playoffs might not like the loss of June and July as vacation time, and Canadian media members who head to their cottages at the stroke of July 2 might have similar issues. But one issue now is how do you return the schedule to an early October start? With seasons going into summer, you’d have to substantially cut short an offseason or cut short a regular season – not an option for owners – to get the playoffs to their standard April-June run.

NHL games in October are much like baseball games in late March or early April: You get a packed house on opening night and maybe a good crowd on your first weekend game, and then have crickets in many arenas until Thanksgiving.

A later start to the schedule makes sense, and this situation might be the impetus for the NHL to move on it. Assuming health issues allow, it will be interesting to see how things go here in July and August as the players get back on the ice.

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