More than two and a half months after shutting down because of the coronavirus outbreak, the National Hockey League became the largest North American professional sports league to announce definitive plans for a return.
Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the N.H.L., announced on Tuesday that 24 teams would return, if and when medically cleared, for a unique playoff tournament in two hub cities. Official training camps would resume no earlier than July 1, and the season would conclude with the presentation of the Stanley Cup to the 2019-2020 champion in the early autumn. The regular season was officially declared complete.
“We remain focused on the safety of our players, coaches, support staff and arena personnel,” Bettman said. “We will not set dates, choose sites or begin to play until we know it is appropriate and prudent and are approved to do so.”
The N.H.L. issued a memo on Monday that detailed testing and safety protocols for what it termed Phase 2, voluntary practices at team facilities that would begin in early June, if local shutdown ordinances have been lifted.
On Tuesday, Bettman outlined the next stages: the opening of training camps for all players, coaches and medical staff, and the start of a conference-based playoff. The hub cities, one hosting the Eastern Conference and one the Western Conference, will be chosen from a list that includes Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton, Alberta; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Pittsburgh; Vancouver; and Toronto. Bettman did not say whether fans would be allowed to attend the games, which would be broadcast on television.
Bettman said that teams would be allowed to bring back 50 employees, including players, coaches, medical staff and club officials, all of whom will be tested for the coronavirus throughout the process.
The players union, led by Donald Fehr, cautioned that though it had agreed with the league on the announced plans, there could be changes before play is resumed, including to health and safety protocols that were designed in conjunction with medical experts and the union. Some remaining financial matters will be addressed in talks between now and the beginning of the playoffs.
“If they need to be amended over time, we will amend them,” Fehr said. “This is a living document, and we have to make sure that logistically, we can actually implement the steps.”
When hockey resumes, the playoff will follow the format approved last week by the executive board of the N.H.L. Players’ Association, expanding the field to 24 teams from 16. The teams qualified based on their points percentages at the time the season was suspended.
The top four teams in each conference will receive a first-round bye. They are the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers in the East, and the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars in the West.
During the first round, those teams will play a conference-based round robin — three games each — to determine their seedings, one through four. The remaining 16 teams will commence best-of-five series to determine which eight of them will advance to the second round.
Bettman said that the league and the players union had not decided whether the second round would be best-of-five or best-of-seven and that the two factions were still discussing whether to reseed after the rounds or to maintain a bracket-style format.
The conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals will be best-of-seven, as usual, and will most likely be played in the two hub cities. But Bettman said that if conditions change, the venues might, too.
Seven teams — the Devils, the Buffalo Sabres, the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, the Ottawa Senators and the Detroit Red Wings — did not qualify for the playoffs. Their seasons ended immediately, each with a dozen or so games unplayed, and they will be entered into the draft lottery along with the eight teams that lose in the first round.
For teams like the Rangers, who would have been eliminated from the playoffs in the traditional, 16-team format, the plan provides new life. As the East’s No. 11 seed, the Rangers will play the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. The No. 7 Islanders will play the No. 10 Florida Panthers.
The National Football League is scheduled to start as planned in September, but the major American sports leagues that would have been in season now — men’s and women’s professional basketball and soccer, and M.L.B. — have faced daunting challenges in efforts to reach agreement with their players unions on safety measures and logistics.
The M.L.B. and the N.B.A. are in negotiations with their players unions and medical experts to determine a way for them to come back, too. Some basketball teams have opened their practice facilities for players to train on a limited basis. The N.F.L. is in its off-season, and it is in the early stages of designing protocols for players, coaches and trainers to gather for mini-training camps in June.