Inside the NHL
It’s the thing nobody’s really talking about during these Stanley Cup playoffs but that will certainly become a huge discussion next month.
We’ve all long assumed the Kraken will launch in October 2021 because October has been the NHL’s opening month the past eight decades. But it’s looking more likely the league could delay starting the 2021-22 season until November or December of next year.
Much depends on what happens during the coming 2020-21 campaign, which now could start in January after an initial Dec. 1 target. Full disclaimer: With COVID-19 still a major concern and the Canadian government yet to reopen borders to non-bubble sports play, predicting events a year from now remains next to impossible.
But there’s been NHL discussion about permanently switching to something like a December-through-July schedule starting with the Kraken’s debut campaign. And that will likely suit the Kraken just fine as it scrambles to complete a $930 million overhaul of Climate Pledge Arena.
The former KeyArena was leveled beneath its roof and is now being built back up again — with construction underway on steel-and-concrete seating platforms.
The team is still targeting completion by late August 2021, possibly September, and hopes to know more in coming weeks. But that’s cutting things awfully close. And when you look at what’s ahead, getting the still partially framed interior to a completed arena with high-end finishes promised by the Kraken and Oak View Group (OVG) venue developers, another month or two of cushion would undoubtedly be welcomed.
Ken Johnsen, the construction executive leading the project, said Monday construction should quicken as precast concrete pieces manufactured in Spokane are now being trucked over and installed. Precasting — commonly used for sports venues — means the huge pieces don’t have to be shaped and dried here and can go up right away.
“So, we’re in good shape, it’s going well — and they fit, which is great,” Johnsen said.
Still, a project slowed by additional COVID-19 safety measures faces an all-out sprint to the finish. There have been even longer COVID-19 delays on another OVG project, UBS Arena, being built for the New York Islanders — which halted for two months due to the pandemic.
And while officials maintain UBS Arena will open by October 2021, you’d have to think they’d also love an extension.
So, those are among things the NHL will keep considering for 2021-22. For now, the league has nearly reached the current season’s Stanley Cup Final without a single positive COVID-19 test within the Toronto and Edmonton bubble zones.
The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning entered Monday up 3-1 in their conference finals, with Dallas later eliminating Vegas in overtime. Since the NHL moved to conference playoffs in 1982, teams up 3-1 in the conference final are 35-1 in winning those series.
That means Washingtonians likely will see Spokane native Tyler Johnson and his Lightning battle the Stars for a title.
Once that’s complete, attention quickly shifts to the 2020-21 regular season. As mentioned, there’s an increased push to delay the Dec. 1 season opening given the quick turnaround from these playoffs.
Also, by waiting another month, the league can better prepare to play games outside “bubbles” and in front of actual fans. The NHL might have to at least start in bubbles — both to appease Canada’s government and squeeze early games in more quickly to accomplish a full 82-game schedule.
The delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo are set to go in late July, meaning the NHL must finish the championship next year beforehand to avoid a broadcasting conflict for NBC. Playing more games travel-free in bubbles early would make that possible.
Then comes the big question: Does the league have a shortened offseason and revert to “normal’’ scheduling for 2021-22, or switch to a permanent November or December start? The league, after all, used to start in December when it formed in 1917, then pushed back to November, then to October by 1942 to better accommodate a greater amount of games.
The major advantage to a December start is avoiding head-to-head competition with most of the NFL’s schedule. Also, the NHL could avoid starting its season in direct competition with the Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series.
Not to mention, the Stanley Cup Final could potentially have an exclusive championship window — depending on whether the NBA also switches to a similar schedule — during baseball’s midsummer doldrums and before the NFL kicks off.
Some favor a November start because it’s only one month removed from the current format — making a mid-July championship finish easier under the league’s normal eight-plus-months routine and avoiding future Summer Olympics conflicts.
Also, a November 2021 start enables the usual offseason length next summer if the finals end in July — and for more of the regular season to play out before the Winter Olympics, starting with Beijing in 2022.
The NHL has never loved taking a two-week Olympic pause. But the Beijing games, featuring NHL players, would happen just two months into the regular season if started in December 2021 — hardly anyone’s dream scenario.
Then again, a November start means another full month competing with the NFL. Regardless, the pandemic gave the league an opportunity to reshape its future. For a century, the NHL’s schedule was tailored to play out in cooler weather more conducive to good indoor ice conditions.
But the science of ice-making and maintaining a consistent arena temperature has greatly evolved. We just saw three playoff games daily in sweltering August heat in Toronto with no real ice impact.
And then, there’s the Kraken and the possibility Climate Pledge Arena won’t be ready.
Sure, that’s only a one-time consideration. But why worry about them — and the Islanders — if you can provide both more construction breathing room?
I’m not thrilled about waiting even longer to see the Kraken finally play. But we’ve all waited this long. So, the NHL might as well give the Kraken more time to perfect its launch while separating — and maybe even distinguishing — its schedule from the muddle of others.