May 26 (UPI) -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled the league's "return to play plan" for the 2019-20 season Tuesday, which includes abandoning the regular season and proceeding into the playoffs with 24 teams instead of 16.
Bettman's address aired on NBCSN and NHL Network in the United States and on Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada. It also was streamed on the league's official website and the NHL's social media platforms.
"As we seek some return to normalcy, this is an important day for NHL fans," Bettman said of the 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 has been suspended since March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Bettman said the 2019-20 regular season is essentially over, and stats are frozen as of March 11 for the purposes of player numbers and end-of-year awards.
Bettman said the goal is to finish this season in the playoffs and have an 82-game campaign in 2020-21. While the players and the league have agreed on the format, the NHL Players Association hasn't approved any return. The NHL and the NHLPA must still determine health and safety protocols and solve other issues, including where to play.
"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 has 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."
The Stanley Cup playoffs typically include 16 teams. Instead, the NHL will move to a 24-team conference-based postseason format, which was approved by the NHLPA last week.
Under the plan, the top four seeds in each conference -- determined by the league standings when the regular season was halted in mid-March -- would earn byes through an opening round of best-of-five play-in series featuring teams seeded five through 12. The games will be played with playoff overtime rules.
Those play-in series would determine which teams advance to the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup bracket, which will include either five- or seven-game series in the first and second rounds. The conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final will both be seven-game series.
The games would be held inside empty arenas at two undecided hub cities, where players, coaches and other staff will be housed during the restart. Bettman said Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver are in consideration as hub cities.
Bettman noted that the decision on the hub cities and when the Stanley Cup playoffs will begin depends on COVID-19 conditions, government regulations and testing capabilities.
"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."
Meanwhile, the NHL is in the process of getting players back to training facilities. On Monday, the league revealed Phase 2 of its "return to play plan," laying out the restrictions on small groups of players and staff members returning to use team facilities.
Phase 1 began on March 12 and involved self-quarantine for players and staff. Phase 2, which requires a 14-day self-quarantine period, is expected to start in early June.
Phase 3 of the league's plan is the reopening of training camps no later than July 1. Phase 4 is the return of competition in the two hub cities.
The NHL season had about 3 1/2 weeks of games left on the schedule at the time of its suspension. The Stanley Cup Playoffs were scheduled to start in April.
The NHL/NHLPA joint "return to play committee" conducted weekly conference calls for the last several months to discuss the league's return to the ice.