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Gary Bettman says the NHL is aiming to begin the 2020-21 season on January 1, 2021

The biggest question of the offseason is when next season might begin.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. photo: Darryl Dyck, CP

One of the biggest questions of the 2020 NHL offseason isn't who will get traded or which free agents will get the biggest contracts. Instead, the biggest question is when the 2020-21 season will even start.

Prior to the first round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did what he had thus far refused to do: he gave a firm date for the start of next season. At least, as firm as you can get in the middle of the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

"Following discussions with the NHL Players' Association and based on what we have learned and what we know and what we even still don't know, I can say that we are now focused on a January 1 start for next season," said Bettman.

That means a three-month offseason, with training camps and the preseason starting in mid-December. In many ways, it's a second full offseason for the players after the four-and-a-half month break between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.

The situation could change significantly, of course, between now and January 1st. In fact, it will have to change significantly. The border between the US and Canada is still closed, which is a problem for a league that intends to play a full 82-game season with full travel. 

It's important to note that the NHL also pitched an earlier start to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs than when they actually occurred. They initially aimed for a mid-May return to play — they didn't get back on the ice until August. 

The NHL is hoping they won't have that kind of delay this time around. Certainly, more is known about COVID-19 than six months ago, but there are still many unknowns. Will the virus be under control in the US by January? Will there be a second (or third) wave in Canada? Will there be a vaccine? 

Whenever the season commences, it will likely start without fans in arenas

“Our game draws its energy, our players draw their energy off the best fans in all of sports,” said Bettman last week. That's a vital component of hockey — the playoffs just weren't the same without the buzz and roar of the crowd — but it's also a vital component of the NHL's financial health.

In-person attendance impacts 50 percent of league revenues, according to Bettman, so they won't be able to play without fans in seats for the entire season. The league will need to figure out how to get fans in seats, even at limited capacity before too long.