NHL plans to return with 24-team playoffs

The National Hockey League (NHL) will give up the rest of the regular season and go straight to the 24-team playoffs instead of 16 teams if it is able to resume play, commissioner Gary Bettman has said.

“As we seek some return to normalcy, this is an important day for NHL fans,” Bettman said of the Return To Play plan on Tuesday, reports Xinhua news agency.

“Since March 12, we’ve been hopeful and optimistic that by developing all options and alternatives, we could get to this point. I know I join sports fans everywhere when I say we cannot wait for the players to hit the ice again.”

The NHL paused the regular season on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 and it will not be completed. The 12 playoffs teams from the Eastern and Western conferences each were determined by points percentage as of that date. Seven teams did not qualify.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety have been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible. And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.”

But the Return To Play plan does not guarantee that the games can come back. The league and the NHL Players’ Association must also figure out health and safety protocols for the future play and solve other key issues including where to play.

Bettman said games are expected to be played in two hub cities and that the decision on the hub cities and when the playoffs begin will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and local government’s regulations.

“Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall,” Bettman said. “At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of the players.”

Candidates for the hub cities include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Pittsburgh in the U.S. and Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada.