By Kevin Flanagan
Hockey fans likely will not want to think about it, but the start of the next NHL season might be more of a question of if rather than when.
On Friday following the league’s general managers meeting, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about a conversation with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. While most believe/hope there will be some version of a 2021 condensed campaign leading towards a more traditional Stanley Cup playoff schedule next spring, it is far from being written in stone right now.
“It’s a totally different challenge and requires a whole bunch of different considerations that I think probably, in some respects, are more challenging than the return to play plans,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic during a 20-minute phone conversation after Friday’s two-hour GMs meeting. “You need to gather as much information as you can, you need to take as much time as you can, and you need to make the best decisions you can.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but there are options that we can pursue, and hopefully we pick the right ones,” Russo reported.
“We’re in a situation where things are evolving every day. You’re monitoring the evolution of the virus and the searches for answers on the virus. You’re monitoring travel restrictions and how we can move clubs around, if we can move clubs around. And we’re monitoring local restrictions with respect to spectators and fans. You’ve got to stay on top of everything and understand things, and they become a very relevant context for the ultimate decisions you make.”
Given the uptick of the COVID-19 virus around the globe and the expectation that it will only get worse in the US this winter, it doesn’t seem to bode well for a league that depends heavily on fan attendance to survive for long financially.
And when it comes to playing in seclusion for long periods again, Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr was clear with his comments after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the first Final ever to be played in September.
“Certainly not for a season, of course not,” Fehr stated then. “Nobody is going to do that for four months or six months or something like that. Whether we could create some protected environments that people would be tested and they’d be clean when they came in and lasted for some substantially shorter period of time with people cycling in and out is one of the things I suspect we will examine.”
Here’s the rub. Not even the most highly-trained minds in the scientific community can predict what the next six months will look like, other than agreeing there will be a second surge of the virus.
If the worst-case scenarios happen, a repeat of the shutdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions will once again be the norm. If that happens, the soon to be cash strapped league would not be able to afford the multiple bubbles to make a season possible. And even if they ponied up the cash, the players would never accept those conditions again.
It is as close to a certainty as you can get that this is likely to be a long winter, no matter the weather. Unfortunately for hockey fans, the bitter reality is that it might be spent in seclusion without the game they love.
(Photo courtesy of Sportsnet.ca.)