By Harvey Hoffman

ESPN is reporting that the NHL is now aiming for a mid-January start date with a 52- or 56-game schedule at best.

The NHL’s initial target of Jan. 1 became unfeasible because of necessary time for training camp — plus extra time promised to the seven teams that did not make this summer’s expanded playoff field — as well as quarantine protocols in some markets. As of Thursday, NHL players had yet to receive any official directive of when they are supposed to report back to their playing cities. Players are currently scattered at their offseason homes, including many still in Europe.

TSN first reported on the mid-January start date.

There have been regular conversations between the NHL and NHLPA about potential schedules, formats or protocols. But first, the sides must get past a financial stalemate: Owners, wanting additional cash flow to kick-start the season, have asked players to tweak their financial arrangement, including deferral of salary beyond the 10% they already agreed to this summer. Players have pushed back on making any changes to their financial arrangement, considering they just signed a new CBA in July. However, sources on the players’ side said the NHLPA would be willing to work with the NHL as long as the owners are willing to give them concessions in return.

Speaking at a Sports Business Journal panel on Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said planning for the 2020-21 season remained a fluid situation.

“That is a work in progress influenced largely by what we’re learning from medical experts,” Bettman said, referring to a potential Jan. 1 start date. “COVID is going through a second wave, which could be worse than the first wave, and between Thanksgiving and the aftermath and what they think is going to happen for Christmas and the aftermath, we are taking our time and making sure as we look to ways to move forward. We are focused on health and safety and doing the right things.”

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The NHL is not expected to have a bubble environment for the 2020-21 season and has shifted its focus to teams playing in home arenas. There would, however, likely be a temporary realignment including an all-Canadian division.

At Wednesday’s SBJ panel, Bettman addressed the economic differences between the league and players but insisted the league is not looking to renegotiate the CBA.

“Under our deal and the one we’ve had for more than a decade with the players’ association, whatever the revenues are, the players only get 50%,” Bettman said. “And if we overpay them and they don’t pay us back in the short term, they have to pay us back over time. There will be stressors on that system, and we’ve had discussions about what those stresses are and how they might be dealt with, but we’re not trying to say, ‘You must do X, Y and Z.’ We’re trying to look for a way to continue to work together.”