NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday that completing the 2019-20 NHL regular season "may not be possible," but one prominent player believes that would be unfair.
The NHL paused its season on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, with players ordered to remain quarantined in their homes until at least April 15. Bettman hoped to have more clarity on a season restart by the end of the month, but he acknowledged for the first time that finishing the full 82-game regular season might not happen.
"The best thing, and the easiest thing, would be if at some point we could complete the regular season and then go into the playoffs as we normally do," Bettman said in an interview on NBCSN. "We understand that that may not be possible, and that's why we're considering every conceivable alternative to deal with whatever the eventuality is. Again, it doesn't even pay to speculate because nobody in any of the sports knows enough now to make those profound decisions."
Bettman said the NHL faces issues of fairness regarding "who gets in if we can't complete the regular season" before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. NHL teams have anywhere from 11 to 14 games remaining in their regular seasons, with 189 games left when play was postponed. Determining how to seed the playoffs without the benefit of a completed regular season has been a point of debate within the NHL and the NHL Players' Association for weeks.
"We had seven teams on the bubble and they all think they would have had a chance. We have to deal with the lottery and order of selection in the draft," Bettman said.
"I think it's not really fair, because it's still like 12 or 13 games ... lots of games [left] and we're right in the mix. We have the opportunity to be in there, and if they just cut it off, I don't think that it's fair. From a sports standpoint, the season is 82 games and then the playoffs start. You just can't cut off where we are and move right into the playoffs," Bobrovsky said on a conference call.
The Panthers have played 69 games this season. Seven of their remaining 13 games were against teams currently outside the playoffs.
"From the economy standpoint, it's a different situation," Bobrovsky said, "but from a sports standpoint, I don't think it's fair."
Other players on teams outside the playoff picture have echoed this. "I think it's fair to start where we left off here. It would be good for the playoffs too, to get those games going again. It would benefit all of us," said defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, who are four points out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with 12 games left.
Whatever the format, the NHL's return faces enormous obstacles, which include the health and safety of those involved; the location of games, as the NHL has discussed the potential of holding playoff rounds in neutral-site arenas to better control the environment; and the local and federal restrictions on travel, shelter in place and essential businesses that Bettman anticipates won't be consistent from region to region -- or, in the NHL's case, nation to nation -- if and when the league restarts.
"From an NHL standpoint, we're viewing all of our options. We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light -- and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can't play and other places where you can," Bettman said. "We're looking at all options. Nothing's been ruled in, nothing's been ruled out. And it's largely going to be determined ... by how much time there is, because we have next season to focus on as well and the health of the countries."
Calgary announced a ban last week on public events until June 30 that includes Flames games. On Tuesday, Montreal canceled festivals, sporting events and other public gatherings through July 2; it is unclear if Canadiens games fall under that policy. But organizers of the Montreal Grand Prix, set for June, announced the race would be postponed, and other gatherings, such as Canada Day celebrations, were canceled.
Bettman confirmed that the NHL is looking into playing games into the summer and downplayed the idea that maintaining NHL-caliber ice was an issue, because of the league's modern and air-conditioned facilities.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.