As much as he’s appreciated the NHL’s well-constructed bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to award a Stanley Cup in 2020, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper conceded Monday that it has been a grind.
“Probably the best part of this thing will be when we check out,” Cooper said.
The moving trucks are parked and ready to break it all down, whenever the bubble bursts this week in Edmonton and the Stanley Cup is hoisted.
Now that they’ve pulled it off – with more than 33,000 negative tests conducted on players and team staff over the past eight weeks – the question is: Will we ever see a bubble again?
NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr told the Associated Press on Sunday that it won’t be for a full season.
“Nobody is going to do that for four months or six months or something like that,” Fehr said.
But what Fehr did admit is a possibility is the idea of a hybrid bubble to start next season.
In Fehr’s words: “Protected environments that people would be tested, and they’ve be clean when they came in and lasted for some substantially shorter period of time with people cycling in and out is one of the things I suspect we will examine.”
A meeting is likely to be scheduled between the NHL and the NHLPA for some time next week to begin discussions. The NHLPA is in the process of finalizing a committee of players to participate in the discussion directly with the league, similar to the Return to Play committee that was created shortly after the pandemic put this season on pause in March.
One concept for a hybrid bubble that has been kicked around on a preliminary basis — but not in a formal manner yet — includes four to six ‘bubbles’ in various locales around the NHL, preferably in cities where fans would be allowed inside arenas.
Fans have already been permitted to attend NFL games in a limited capacity this season in Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee and Missouri. That list is expected to grow to include North Carolina, Arizona and Louisiana in upcoming weeks.
Although most NFL teams play in outdoor venues, the hope would be that local and state regulations would allow for similar capacity restrictions for teams like the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, to name a few, to host games to start with some fans in the building.
At least one hybrid bubble would be located in Canada. Given no near end in sight to the Canada-U.S. border restrictions, an all-Canadian division is a distinct possibility to begin next season. It was one thing to be granted an exemption to award the Stanley Cup in a once-in-a-century, two-month tournament with strict protocols and just one border crossing per team. It’s another taller task to seek federal government approval for an entire season’s worth of movement.
This hybrid bubble concept would include a rotation of two weeks in the bubble, followed by one week at home where players can regroup with their families, then rotating back in for another two weeks before returning home again.
The thinking is that each team would be able to play approximately 12 games per month, which is doable given that there will be no travel between games other than flying in and out.
One major schedule sticking point is that the NHL likely needs to conclude the 2021 season before July 22, when its American television rightsholder, NBC, flips to coverage of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. With 12 games per month, that could allow for a shortened 48- or 60-game regular season in four or five months.
There are pitfalls to this plan. Since it is a hybrid bubble, the inherent risk is introducing a new, potentially infected group into a bubble with other healthy teams. Stringent, regular testing would be required, along with a commitment from players to socially distance and take the necessary precautions while at home during the off-weeks.
It is also a plan that the NHL’s players may not be interested in. Players have not exactly been shy in expressing their lack of interest in a long-term bubble format.
The key to a hybrid bubble concept is that it is not permanent.
The plan would be to start the season in hybrid bubbles, then progress to teams hosting games in their home arenas and cities with limited capacity, before hopefully ramping up closer to full capacity in time for the playoffs.
The format of the 2021 season hinges largely on how the science and local health authority regulations that evolve over the next months and as the calendar turns.
“There’s still too much we don’t know,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Sept. 19. “We're going to have to do the same thing we did for return to play: explore all the options, be flexible and agile enough to implement when the appropriate time comes.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli