WASHINGTON, May 26 (Xinhua) -- The National Hockey League (NHL) will give up the rest of the regular season and go straight to the 24-team playoffs instead of 16 teams if it is able to resume play, commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday.
"As we seek some return to normalcy, this is an important day for NHL fans," Bettman said of the Return To Play plan. "Since March 12, we've been hopeful and optimistic that by developing all options and alternatives, we could get to this point. I know I join sports fans everywhere when I say we cannot wait for the players to hit the ice again."
The NHL paused the regular season on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 and it will not be completed. The 12 playoffs teams from the Eastern and Western conferences each were determined by points percentage as of that date. Seven teams did not qualify.
"I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount," Bettman said. "While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety have been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so."
"Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible. And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion."
But the Return To Play plan does not guarantee that the games can come back. The league and the NHL Players' Association must also figure out health and safety protocols for the future play and solve other key issues including where to play.
Bettman said games are expected to be played in two hub cities and that the decision on the hub cities and when the playoffs begin will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and local government's regulations.
"Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall," Bettman said. "At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of the players."
Candidates for the hub cities include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Pittsburgh in the U.S. and Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada.
"Obviously, these are extraordinary and unprecedented times," Bettman said. "Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect. And I am certain that, depending on which team you root for or which team you cover, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently."
"But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused. And this plan will produce a worthy champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL."