On Sunday, January 10, 2021, the NHL announced that the league had been given the green light to return to play with a 56-game season that began January 13, 2021. Obviously, this season so far has been unlike any other season due to the addition of COVID-19 and its restrictions, however with the reopening of establishments and the want for sports entertainment, the league has made modifications to suit this year’s needs. When announcing the plan to return to play, Commissioner Gary Bettman stated: 

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount. While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

One of the major changes being made to the league as part of this plan is divisional alignment. Aligning the divisions means teams will only play teams within their division in an effort to limit travel and ensure that teams do not cross the United States-Canada border. In normal circumstances, the teams would play against each other from all divisions and in every part of the country, however the restrictions set are very necessary to the NHL returning to play safely. A factor of these changes is that one division will be made up of only the Canadian teams in the league. There will be four divisions, the North, East, Central, and West, all comprised of their appropriate teams based on location. 

The way the season looks has also been different this year. Each team in the East, Central, and West divisions play every other team in their division eight times, while each team in the North division plays every other team ten times due to it having less teams than the other three divisions. Also, in an extra effort to stop the potential spread of COVID-19, teams have and will often play several games in a row against the same opponent to limit travel. As far as playoffs, the league will have the traditional format of best-of-seven serieses with sixteen teams, but thanks to divisional alignment, it will seem different than normal. In each division, the top four teams will qualify for playoffs and will then be split into brackets for the first few rounds (First seed vs Fourth seed, Second seed vs Third seed). After those games are played, the advancing four teams will go to the Stanley Cup Semifinal, usually known as the Conference Final in normal years. They will be seeded one through four by their total of regular season points and will again play in a No. 1 vs No. 4, No.2 vs No. 3 format. In theory, this new way of play could allow for this year’s Stanley Cup to feature two teams that usually play in the same conference, which is impossible to happen in a traditional season.  

With the talk of playoffs being thrown around, I am sure that the million dollar question running through everyone’s minds is, will anyone be able to attend the games? Although the season has been approved to move forward, the addition of fans seems unlikely. The NHL is allowing each team to decide if they want fans to attend games in the arenas, but so far the only team considering even a small crowd is the Dallas Stars. Also, if a team is unable to play in their home arena due to local COVID-19 restrictions, the league will provide a “neutral” site for the game to be played. The league has also released a list of standard COVID-19 protocols that each team will be required to follow. They are as follows: news of any player who has tested positive must be disclosed, any player tested positive must follow isolation guidelines and be cleared by both a cardiologist and the team physician before returning to the ice, any player who comes in contact with someone tested positive will continue to play as long as they test negative and remain asymptomatic, all coaches will be required to wear face masks during games, every player will get their own hotel room when traveling, and each team will be prohibited from going out to restaurants, bars, and shops when traveling. 

Although these precautions may seem like a lot, they are all extremely vital to ensuring that all players, coaches, and staff stay safe and healthy while returning to and hopefully remaining on the ice. While entertaining fans and keeping up with the competition of the sport is wanted, evidently the safety of everyone is the first concern of the league and the precautions set in place will allow for a uniquely safe, but still exciting season of NHL hockey. 

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