By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – The National Hockey League (NHL) announced on Sunday that the league’s teams will open their training camps for the 2020-21 season on Jan. 3, 2021 and that regular season games will begin on Jan. 13th.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, that means putting in hard work for about eight practices and quickly embarking on a new season according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“It’s gonna be a quick training camp,” captain Jordan Staal said during a media call with his coach and GM Don Waddell on Monday.
“With the shortened season, every game is gonna be that much more heightened (in importance), so it’s just gonna be one of those things that everyone be prepared right away. Our group’s gotta jell quickly and find a way to get hot early and continue to stay hot because with a short season, you’ve gotta string together some games if we wanna make that push to playoffs.”
In the NHL’s agreement with the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), all 31 teams will play a 2020-21 regular-season schedule of 56 games that begins Jan. 13th and concludes on May 8.
As part of the agreement, the Stanley Cup Playoffs would feature 16 teams in the traditional best-of-seven, four-round format and conclude around mid-July.
“That’s why they workout in the offseason, that’s why they’re trainin’ hard, and they have been – ready to go,” Brind’Amour added.
“We don’t have that regular training camp, that time. It’s very similar to after ‘the pause’. We had those few months off and we had about the same (time to prepare)…It’s not tip-toe in – the games count right from the start. Like Jordo said, we can’t have a bad start. There’s not enough runway to catch up.”
SOPs still to come
Despite beginning during a period of heightened concern as the global coronavirus pandemic continues to result in increased positive cases in both the United States and Canada, the league will provide health and safety protocols, transition rules and a critical dates calendar in addition to the full 2020-21 schedule in the coming days.
The NHLPA and the NHL pointed out in their release that they intend to be flexible and adaptable in their approach during the coming weeks to ensure compliance with directives from both local and national governmental and health authorities focusing on the health and safety of the players, other game-related personnel.
The priority will continue to be focused on the health and safety of fans and players and club, league, NHLPA, and arena personnel.
“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was quoted in the league’s release.
“While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play.
“The players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and players alike,” Don Fehr, NHLPA Executive Director noted.
“During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”
Waddell echoed the league and PA’s sentiments.
“We need to play,” Waddell said.
“To go out of sight for a year, probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We are who we are – the NHL. I think we need to be in front of them. Our fans deserve that. They miss that, they’re callin’ all the time. They want us to be playing, so I think that’s an important factor you have to look at.”
Playing on the fly
As a result of the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border, the league and the players also sought to minimize team travel as much as possible and shifted to realignment to exclusively intradivisional play.
It is anticipated that teams will play games in their home arenas while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans.
Depending on prevailing conditions both in local markets and across North America, games in one or more “neutral site” venues per division will be played if and as necessary.
The Hurricanes will compete in the Central Division, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning.
A different grouping than their Metropolitan Division list of opponents in recent years.
“We haven’t played some of those teams much,” Brind’Amour pointed out.
“It might be a breath of fresh air for some of our guys to kind of create some more rivalry with other teams.”
Each team in the East, Central and West divisions will play every other team in its division eight times while each team in the North Division, comprised of the league’s Canadian-based teams, will play every other team in its division nine or 10 times.
The top four teams in each division will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with intradivisional play in the first two rounds (#1 vs. #4; #2 vs. #3).
The four teams that advance to the semifinal round would be seeded by their regular season points total, with the No. 1 seed playing the No. 4 seed in one series and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds meeting in the other.
“We’re happy we’re getting going, we’re playing some hockey, and we’re excited at being back,” Staal said.
“Whoever we’re lining up against, we’re just excited to play some hockey.”
Notables: Formal training camps will begin on Jan. 3. The Hurricanes plan to use their new training facility at the Wake Competition Center for a majority of training camp time…There will be no preseason games…The seven teams that did not participate in the 2019-20 Return to Play will be permitted to open their training camps as early as Dec. 31…There will be no outdoor game planned for Raleigh this year according to Waddell. “Economically, it doesn’t make sense.”…The plan following this season is to return to a “normal” hockey calendar for the 2021-22 (regular season beginning in October).
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport