Scheduling NHL season with, without Olympics causes chaos

When the NHL released its 2021-22 regular-season schedule, it featured a Winter Olympics break Feb. 7-22 with the caveat that "no final agreement or decision has been made regarding the possible participation of players."

If the NHL doesn't send its players to the Beijing Games, it would switch to a revised schedule that will adopt as many dates from the current one as possible. But changing schedules this late in a truncated offseason would have a dramatic impact on NHL teams, which are already selling tickets and scheduling travel based on the current schedule.

"In my own conversations, there are some teams that are acting like this is Armageddon," an NHL team executive told ESPN this week.

Nearly three weeks after the schedule was revealed, talks between the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and IOC are ongoing, with no indication whether a deal can be brokered on player participation. Complicating matters are the climbing numbers in the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the COVID restrictions that will be placed on athletes in Beijing, which could dwarf those that players experienced in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs bubbles. The NHL has cited the pandemic as a primary factor in its decision on whether to attend the Olympics for the first time since 2014, after vowing in last summer's collective bargaining agreement with the players that it would participate in the next two Winter Games.

At least two NHL teams have told fans that a final decision on Olympic participation would be made by the end of August.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN that "yes, I think that's accurate."

All 32 teams have copies of the "revised" schedule without an Olympic break. For the most part, lengthy road trips land around the same time in both schedules, coinciding with building availability. But in other places, there are dramatic differences. Some teams estimate that 16 of 41 home dates will have to be rescheduled -- one NHL team reported that six of its eight games in the opening month would have new dates

ESPN reached out to two dozen fans of different teams, all of whom own 2021-22 half-season and partial season-ticket plans. All of them said that their team ticket representatives had not communicated anything about the possibility of switching to a different schedule.

"The schedule was presented as if it was the final schedule," said one Dallas Stars season-ticket holder.

Most of these ticket plans already have games attached. In some cases, it's the fans who select which games they'll attend. In other cases, the teams select the visiting opponents. For example, the Boston Bruins have a plan with preselected games. The expansion Seattle Kraken have two half-season plans: one that includes the first regular-season home game in franchise history and one that does not.

Some NHL teams are preparing to sell single-game tickets even if Olympic participation isn't finalized. One team told ESPN that it would begin selling tickets only for October's home games, as that month is least impacted by a switch to the second schedule. But the Columbus Blue Jackets, meanwhile, will begin selling the full season to single-ticket buyers on Aug. 20.

One of the challenges this Olympics uncertainty has caused: Teams aren't able to market special events to their ticket buyers.

None of the fans ESPN surveyed said they have received the 2021-22 promotional schedule -- with bobblehead and magnetic calendar giveaways and those games that welcome specific groups to the arena. Those dates haven't been firmed up because rescheduling is complicated. Because those nights are sponsorship activations, there would be an extra layer of negotiation necessary in moving them. So most NHL teams have chosen not to schedule them yet.

But a few teams have had to schedule events that require special coordination. For example, the Stars announced they will be retiring Hall of Fame defenseman Sergei Zubov's No. 56 on Jan. 28, 2022, to ensure Zubov, his family and former teammates could carve out time to attend.

There are ripple effects beyond ticket sales. Teams have had to schedule travel based on two scheduling possibilities, too.

One NHL team booked the entire season of travel with the Olympic break scheduled. If the NHL opts not to go, its travel executives would have to "replicate that work again" for the revised schedule.

Other teams have attempted to book both schedules, running into difficulty on the Plan B schedule when hotels have asked for nonrefundable deposits, sometimes for up to 50 room reservations. One Eastern Conference team has sought clauses in its road hotel contracts in case it needs to move the dates for the second schedule. In at least one case, the hotel agreed only if it had a right of first refusal on the rescheduled dates due to occupancy concerns.

There's an impact on local broadcasters, too. Most regional sports networks carry multiple teams, including the local NHL and NBA franchises, if it's a multi-team town. The RSNs have been reaching out to teams asking about Olympic participation, asking about the final decision.

As it is every season, the regular-season schedule is a juggling act. Team executives praised the work of Steve Hatze Petros, who leads the NHL's team of schedule-makers who piece together an 82-game schedule for each team. The schedulers take requests from teams for dates, based on building availabilities and requested travel dates. This season was perhaps their greatest challenge in building two parallel schedules.

"This year, every building has so much demand for every date for rescheduled shows," said a team executive who oversees arena operations. He said acts that have been booked at their arena understand that the NHL team is the priority and that, until Olympic participation has been finalized, there's still a chance their dates will have to be moved.

While changing schedules could lead to chaos for teams before the start of the regular season in October, chaos has become the norm for them over the past two seasons. The 2019-20 season was cut short by the COVID pandemic; the 56-game season in 2020-21 was constantly interrupted by sudden postponements due to positive test results.

"If this were three years ago, we'd all be rightfully crying about it. But with all the cancellations and delays we've all suffered through over the last 18 months, we're not that upset about it," said one NHL team executive. "If you have to change, you change."