NHL's coronavirus comeback plan features 24-team playoff format

NHL commissioner: Probably going to be playing into the summer

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman discusses the fate of the 2020 hockey season based on coronavirus and medical developments.

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The NHL will forgo the rest of its regular-season schedule and proceed to a 24-team playoff format if it is able to resume play this summer during the coronavirus pandemic, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.

The league is in phase one of a four-phase “Return to Play Plan" that will utilize a modified playoff format to eventually determine a Stanley Cup champion. The modified playoffs would place the NHL’s top 24 teams in two “hub cities" with secure arenas, transportation, hotels and extensive testing in place. The NHL is aiming to resume play later this summer if conditions allow.

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The NHL has yet to set specific dates for its return or identify which two cities will serve as hubs. Bettman identified Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh among a list of 10 potential locations.

“At the pause, we committed to resuming play only when appropriate and prudent,” Bettman said. “We are hopeful the Return To Play Plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount.”

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The NHL suspended play March 12 after the worsening coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to safely hold games. At the time of the pause, the league had completed 85 percent of its regular-season schedule.

The league remains in phase one of its plan, which called for teams and players to self-isolate whenever possible and adhere to all local public health guidance. Under phase two, NHL teams would be permitted to reopen their practice facilities for voluntary training in small groups.

The NHL and NHL Players Association agreed to safety protocols earlier this week that would limit the voluntary training groups to no more than six players on the ice at a time. Coaches would not be permitted to attend.

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Under phase three, NHL teams would open formal training camps ahead of a resumption of play. Bettman said training camps would begin no earlier than July 1 and likely won’t be approved before the first half of that month.

Phase four would signal the start of the 24-team playoff format. Participating teams are determined by winning percentage at the time of the season pause. The top four teams in each conference will compete in a round-robin tournament to determine playoff seeding.

Bettman said the NHL is prepared to play into the early fall in order to complete its 2019-20 season.

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