NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that starting the 2020-21 season as late as December is on the table as the league considers all options for finishing this season and beginning the following one.
"We have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when we can start," Bettman said in an interview with NHL Network on Thursday. "There's no magic for next season of starting in October as we traditionally do. If we have to start in November or December, that's something that will be under consideration. We're going to try to make good, prudent, careful judgments. This isn't a race to be first back."
The NHL paused its regular season on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The league and the NHLPA said this week they're looking at Phase 2 of a "return to play" plan, following the current period of "self-quarantine" by players and team staff. Phase 2 involves small group activities in NHL team training facilities, something the league hopes can happen in mid-to-late May.
Bettman, however, said there is no firm timeline or target dates established.
"We're going to have to take things one step at a time, because the health and well-being of our players is paramount to anything we're focused on," he said.
"Our health concerns for the players really fit into two categories: One is obviously COVID-19, and two, whatever we're going to do, we don't want them playing games until they're back in game shape. We don't want anybody getting injured."
The NHL and its players have been in contact throughout this season pause, including through the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee, which features several current players such as Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs star John Tavares.
"Having the committee that's been put together with the players is important so that we can get the feedback on the issues that are important to them, and how to resolve them, and that we can be communicating how we're focusing on the things we think that need to be done," Bettman said.
"It's been extraordinarily collaborative, constructive and cooperative, and I couldn't be more pleased with the interaction that we're having."
There has been heavy speculation that the NHL is targeting July and August to finish its regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs, cloistering its teams at four centrally located arenas and playing multiple games per day in an empty building.
Bettman cautioned against making any assumptions about those plans. "We're looking at all of our options. No decisions have been made," he said. "When we have something to say, we announce it."