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NHL eyes a return to normalcy for the 2021-22 season

Several topics were on the agenda as general managers recently met with Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Calgary Flames at Dallas Stars Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

With COVID-19 vaccinations being rolled out across North America, and the NHL transitioning into its offseason, league executives and general managers recently met to lay the framework for the 2021-22 season.

The plan is to operate with a full, 82-game schedule, the four regularly-aligned divisions (Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central, and Pacific), and traditional start and end dates for the season.


The NHL is hoping and planning for a 2021-22 season with a full 82-game schedule and fully vaccinated players returning to pre-COVID-19 conditions.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on Monday briefed general managers on the guidelines for next season and a variety of other topics in a video conference called by senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell.

Fully vaccinated players will be able to travel without protocols and work out on and off the ice without limitations on the size of the group and without being tested for COVID-19, presuming vaccination rates in the United States and Canada continue to climb and the Canada government loosens travel restrictions.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association continue to discuss the procedures for unvaccinated players.

After temporarily realigning and playing a 56-game, intradivisional schedule this season because of COVID-19, the NHL is planning to return to its previous schedule format, with each team playing all the others at least twice, and its previous divisional alignment, with the Metropolitan Division and Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference and the Central Division and Pacific Division in the Western Conference.

As previously planned, the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division to make room in the Pacific Division for the expansion Seattle Kraken, who begin play next season.

The NHL plans to release the 2021-22 schedule before the 2021 NHL Draft on July 23-24. The NHL is working on two versions of the schedule — one that includes a break for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and another that does not — pending the resolution to ongoing discussions with the NHLPA and the International Olympic Committee.

The NHL did not participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics after its players competed in five consecutive Olympics from 1998-2014. The NHL position has been that participation in the Olympics disrupts the NHL season, particularly when not held in North America.

But last year, when the NHL and NHLPA extended the collective bargaining agreement through 2025-26, they agreed to go to the Olympics if they could reach an agreement with the International Olympic Committee.

The GMs also spent about 45 minutes Monday focusing on the officiating standard for the cross-checking penalty. Continuing a discussion that began in a small-group breakout session on cross-checking at the GMs’ previous in-person meeting, in March 2020, NHL senior vice president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom led a review of video clips.

The GMs conducted similar reevaluations in the past on the officiating standard for slashing, hooking and holding. The discussion on cross-checking will continue during a video conference meeting of the NHL Competition Committee on Tuesday, but no rule change is planned.

Professional sports leagues are entering a new normal with COVID-19 not going away anytime soon. The NHL is no different in this case.

These changes, while expected, are still reassuring to hear. I don't know about you, but I’m thrilled that the Penguins won't be playing the Boston Bruins or New York Islanders eight times over the course of a month. COVID-19 has disrupted many things over the last year-and-a-half, so a return to what we’re familiar with is almost... exciting?

The two big talking points out of this meeting will be Olympic participation and a potential reformation of the NHL rulebook.

Will the NHL and NHLPA reach an agreement on the Olympics? Who knows. The players want it. The owners do not.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun was able to add to the hotly-debated topic:

Time is ticking towards that end date of July 23.

And while the discussion of what is and isn't a cross-checking penalty was held, don't hold your breath for any major retooling of the league rulebook.

The last time rules or penalties were modified to this type of extent came back in 2011 with the addition of specific reference to “contact with the head.” Since then, no major rule change involving the cross-checking, slashing, hooking, or holding penalty has been implemented.

Even when there is no hockey on TV, the NHL never fails in creating headlines during the dog days of summer.