The NHL is targeting a Jan. 1 start date for next season, commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.
In an interview with NHL Network, Bettman reiterated that the league hopes to play a full 82-game season and have fans in arenas. Bettman said planning discussions with the NHL Players' Association will begin shortly after the free-agency period, which begins Friday.
When the NHL and NHLPA revealed their return-to-play initiatives in July, they targeted Dec. 1 to begin next season, though that date was fluid. The NHL completed its 2019-20 season last month, when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Dallas Stars in the Edmonton, Alberta, bubble.
The NHL draft is being held virtually Tuesday and Wednesday.
Among the items the NHL and NHLPA must discuss for next season are the format and the schedule, as well as health and safety initiatives. Although the players agreed that bubbles were necessary to complete the 2020 postseason -- a two-month tournament that took place in Edmonton and Toronto -- their preference is to avoid them for next season.
The bubble postseason was a success from a health and safety perspective. The NHL conducted daily COVID-19 testing for all players and staffers for two months, and it reported zero confirmed cases. Players, however, were less than pleased with the amenities and were frustrated that their family members were largely unable to join them later in the tournament, counter to what was originally promised.
The NHL is a gate-driven league, and it would take a significant financial hit if fans were not allowed in buildings next season.
"If there's an option to consider, believe me, we're considering it," Bettman said in September. "It's conceivable that we start without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point, and by some point in time, maybe our buildings are open."
The NHL will face a serious roadblock if the Canada-United States border does not open for nonessential business. Sources told ESPN that the league is considering, among many other options, an all-Canadian division of teams if the border remains closed.
Teams are allowed to open their facilities for offseason training on Oct. 15. The NHL and NHLPA agreed on a 19-page document of training protocols, which include that a maximum of 12 players can be on the ice at one time and that participants must be tested at least twice weekly for COVID-19. Any player who has had COVID-19 also must undergo a cardiac screening before participation.