When the National Hockey League (NHL) resumes its virus-hit season on Saturday it will be a postseason unlike any other in league history with teams competing in two Canadian cities in a bid to limit travel and minimize COVID-19 risk.
FILE PHOTO: Fans fill the steps of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington as they watch a telecast of the Stanley Cup finals in Washington, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/David Shepardson/FILE PHOTOWhile some of the changes, including regular testing of all players, will not be so obvious, many other aspects of the NHL’s Return to Play plan will be hard to miss when the puck is dropped for the first time since mid-March.
EMPTY ARENAS The most glaring difference when teams head into battle inside the home arenas of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers will be the lack of fans in the stands.
To help fill the void, there will be LED screens and stages situated around the ice surface, creating a television-friendly look.
In a bid to help make the surroundings feel a bit more familiar, the NHL has acquired celebratory goal songs, goal horns, in-arena music compilations and motivational videos from each of the 24 teams participating.
NEW FORMAT Under the unique playoff format, the NHL will hold a 24-team tournament that would see the Stanley Cup, traditionally awarded in June, presented in October.
The top four seeds in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference will play a round-robin series to determine their seeding for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The other teams will compete in a best-of-five qualification round to determine the rest of the 16-team field for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which will then follow the traditional format with four rounds of best-of-seven series.
LEVEL OF PLAY The Stanley Cup Playoffs, which typically start right after an 82-game regular season, have a reputation for being both high intensity and extremely fast-paced but this year’s action could prove a little slow-going at first.
The 24 teams competing in Canada are essentially restarting from a standstill given none have played a competitive hockey game since mid-March.
As such, the action in the early going could resemble more the start of an NHL season, when goal-scoring traditionally rises, to typical playoff hockey, which is tighter and more physically demanding.
SECURE ZONES Unlike the National Basketball Association which has assembled its teams in a restricted campus at Disney World in Florida, the NHL has essentially taken over four luxury hotels in Edmonton and two in Toronto.
Three of the Edmonton hotels are for players and each is within walking distance of the arena while one of the Toronto venues is in the heart of the city and connected to the arena by a secured walking path.
Each city’s secure zones, which have been fenced-in to keep those inside away from the general public, offer many amenities including on-site restaurants, bars, movie theaters and practice rinks.