NHL to restart with 24-team playoff in two hub cities

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New York (AFP)

The National Hockey League announced Tuesday it will abandon the rest of the regular season and proceed directly to a 24-team playoff staged in two hub cities.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the revised schedule would "produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion" after a season that has been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic.

However Bettman offered no fixed date on when play would resume, while the two cities due to host the playoffs were also yet to be decided. Formal training camps won't open until July 1 at the earliest, he added.

The NHL season has been on pause since March 12 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and all players currently remain under league-mandated quarantine.

Bettman said 10 cities are in the running for the two hub centres, including seven from the US: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh. The three Canadian cities are Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton.

Bettman said the league had drawn up a long-list of candidate cities in order to retain scheduling flexibility.

"We didn't want to get locked in. We don't want to go to a place where there is a lot of COVID-19 or we don't want to go to a place where we can't get the testing we need," he said. "There is going to be extensive testing. It must be available on wide-scale basis without obstructing local needs."

- Border snag -

Although three Canadian cities are in the running, Bettman later told reporters that unless Canada lifts mandatory 14-day quarantine rules, the NHL will not be heading north of the US border.

He reiterated earlier reports that the playoff format would begin with best-of-five series, but the Stanley Cup final would be the traditional best-of-seven.

"We anticipate playing into the late summer and early fall," he said.

Under the proposed schedule, the top four seeds in each conference would play a round robin tournament for first-round seedings.

The top four seeds in the Eastern Conference hub city would be the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers.

The top four Western Conference teams would be the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars.

The other 16 teams in both conferences would play in a best-of-five first round.

The rest of the bracketed playoff format for the Eastern Conference would have Pittsburgh (5) vs. Montreal (12) winner playing the fourth seed, the Carolina (six) vs. New York Rangers (11) winner playing the three seed, the New York Islanders (seven) vs. Florida (10) winner playing the two seed and the Toronto (eight) vs. Columbus (nine) winner playing the one seed.

The Western matchups are Edmonton (5) vs. Chicago (12) winner playing the fourth seed, the Nashville (six) vs. Arizona (11) winner playing the three seed, the Vancouver (seven) vs. Minnesota (10) winner playing the two seed and the Calgary (eight) vs. Winnipeg (nine) winner playing the one seed.

Games will be played behind closed doors without fans in the buildings.

While the players and the NHL have agreed on a format, the NHL Players' Association has not formally approved any actual return to finish the season.

Bettman said the league and clubs will combine to spend millions of dollars conducting up to 30,000 tests for the players, coaches, officials and staff.

"You just do the math," he said. "Our medical advisors tell us that by the time we are doing this over the summer, it will be a relatively insignificant number relative to the number of tests that will be available."