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Time to play that hockey: The NHL is officially back for 2021



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The BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., where the NHL’s Florida Panthers are expected to play during the 2021 season. // @GeorgeRichards

The NHL plans to be back on the ice in January for the 2021 season after officially agreeing to terms with the players’ association on Sunday afternoon.

Per the agreement, the NHL’s 2021 season will consist of 56 games starting on Wednesday, Jan. 13. The regular season will run through May 8.

According to the NHL, the playoffs will consist on 16 teams in the traditional best-of-7 format with the Stanley Cup being handed out to the league champion sometime in July.

The NHL plans to go back to a ‘normal’ schedule for the 2021-22 season.

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“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,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

“While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play.”

Said NHLPA director Don Fehr: “The players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and players alike. During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”

As reported earlier, the league will shuffle its divisions for this season.

The Florida Panthers will be part of a new Central Division with Atlantic rivals Tampa Bay and Detroit. Joining them will be Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas and Nashville.

There will be four divisions, including a new ‘North Division’ which will consist of the seven Canadian teams. The other three divisions (East, Central and West) will consist of the 24 teams based in the United States.

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The temporary realignment of the NHL for the 2021 season. // @NHL

This season will only feature divisional play to cut down on travel meaning the Panthers will play the teams within the Central eight times each.

The NHL and NHLPA say they will release the health and safety protocols as well as transition rules and critical dates — not to mention the actual schedule — in the next few days.

The NHL says teams which are allowed to will play games in their home arena although “most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans.”

The Panthers plan its Sunrise arena up to fans although the team has not officially announced whether it will do so or not.

Capacity at the nearly 20,000-seat arena will be limited for obvious reasons.

The BB&T Center recently became the first NHL arena to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management which recognizes the arena’s “adherence to the IWBI’s stringent guidelines and protocols for combatting COVID-19 and preparedness to safely accommodate fans upon reopening.”

The league also said it is “prepared to play games in one or more neutral site venues per division should it become necessary.”

Training camp for the Panthers — and the rest of the teams which made it to the 2020 expanded postseason — is scheduled for Jan. 3 which is two weeks away. There will be no exhibition games before the opening of the 2021 season.

The seven teams which did not make the postseason, and have been off since the NHL shut things down on March 12, can open training camp on New Year’s Eve.

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“Given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a statement from the league and union reads, “the NHLPA and the NHL intend to be flexible and adaptable in their approach during the coming weeks to ensure compliance with directives from both local and national governmental and health authorities focusing on the health and safety of the players, other game-related personnel and the communities in which we play.

“The priority will continue to be focused on the health and safety of our fans and players and club, league, NHLPA and arena personnel.’’

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