The NHL ice hockey league has confirmed plans to begin a 56-game regular season schedule on January 13, with teams set to play at their home arenas.

The regular season will conclude on May 8, with the Stanley Cup playoffs to feature 16 teams in the traditional best-of-seven, four-round format and conclude around mid-July. The 2021-22 season would then begin as ‘normal’ in October next year.

The NHL announced the schedule yesterday (Sunday) together with the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Health and safety protocols, transition rules and the fixture schedule will be released in the coming days.

The 2019-20 NHL season was suspended in March due to COVID-19, with the campaign eventually being concluded in August and September. All games were held within centralised hubs in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Edmonton, but the initial plan is for teams to play at their home arenas next season.

In reaching an agreement on the format of next season, the NHL and NHLPA determined that the ongoing closure of the US-Canada border required “realignment”. The schedule for next season will seek to minimise team travel as much as possible by shifting to exclusively interdivisional play (North, West, Central and East).

Teams in the East, Central and West divisions will play every other team eight times. Each team in the North Division, which will only feature the league’s seven Canadian franchises, will play each other nine or 10 times. The top four teams in each division will qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL said that most arenas will not be able to welcome fans during the initial part of the season. The league would be prepared to play games in one or more neutral-site venues per division should it become necessary.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said: “The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion.

“While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritise the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play. And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly executive director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our league back on the ice.”

The 56-game regular season is significantly shorter than the usual NHL campaign, which comprises 82 games. No pre-season games will be played ahead of the start of the regular season in mid-January.

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