I think the title says it all for hockey fans: We are now over three months without the NHL, without the AHL, NCAA hockey never finished and we still have a 2019-20 regular season to complete and award a Stanley Cup.
This is the way it’s always been, right? Well, sports fans get used to the new “normal” in the world of sports. The reality is that nobody – commissioners, teams, players unions, or the players themselves have any real plan of when and where they can resume the NHL season.
There have been many ideas floating around in the past month, or so that can make a hockey fan’s head swim. First, there was the idea to move the NHL out to North Dakota or somewhere isolated. That in itself created a possible logistical nightmare – sorry North Dakota residents. Still, your state is out in the middle of nowhere, which means limited hotels for players and staff, limited hockey arenas, limited news media, and a potential disaster for the NHL. There is also the new specter of Covid-19 outbreaks in rural areas in the United States, which makes isolated areas no longer a viable choice to resume the hockey season.
The 24 team tournament is still being floated around as another choice to end the regular season and move into the playoffs.
The top 24 teams will play in a “March Madness” style tournament; when the top teams start advancing, they could play a best-of-5 series, and then the final teams standing could play for the Stanley Cup Finals.
However, many fans and players alike may feel that this type of tournament is more of a “Coronavirus Cup” than the Stanley Cup, and hockey purists may also bemoan how a winner is chosen this year. Again, we all have to remember that there is a new “normal,” which is anything but typical compared to years past. If the NHL, along with the NBA, are able to finish this season out and award some sort of champion it will be a logistics and public relations miracle.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was recently quoted by NHL.com that the league is looking at “probably eight or nine different places” to handle “a dozen or so teams in one location” so the NHL is still trying to figure out how and where to bring this season to a logical conclusion. Again, cities across North America have varying issues regarding Covid-19 with some regions still in a virtual lockdown while other parts of the United States have literally opened up to many daily functions. Nowhere in North America has opened up to large crowds, however, so the NHL staff will have to figure out how to stop the financial bleeding and resume what’s left of this season as quickly as possible before 2020 turns into 2021.
Other major issues still linger and could adversely affect any attempt to resume the NHL season any time soon. Fully 17% of the NHL players are not in North America currently and there will have to be international cooperation on a grand scale in order for these players to return and start playing hockey again. Countries such as Sweden, which originally resisted many of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions that have existed in Europe and North America, now has a huge spike in new Covid-19 cases and Swedish players may be prohibited from returning to their NHL teams. Movement across the U.S.-Canadian border may also be troublesome as the governmental and public health officials from both nations are going to have to work together in order for the NHL to resume play. Frequent Covid-19 testing of all players, staff, officials, and arena workers will also be certainly mandatory for any resumption of play. This may not play well with local populations who have been struggling to obtain testing while the NHL is able to move “to the front of the line” simply in order to bring hockey back to the fans.
The logistics of staging hockey games is still another major issue and will carry over into how the NBA, MLB, NFL, and college sports will be able to resume any type of fan attendance. How far will fans need to be spread out? Will fans be required to wear masks? Will sanitizers be used throughout the arenas and stadiums? Will food and beverages be served? These questions still linger on how to bring sports back to live crowds.
A final issue that the NHL and the NHLPA need to work out is the timing of this season’s completion and how it may affect the 2020-21 season. If NHL players have to play all summer and into the fall, will there be a break for them before moving into training camp for next season? As the professional sports leagues look to figure out how and where to play, the final question each league including the NHL needs to answer is “when?”
One final effect of the current pandemic may be the altering of sports as they relate to seasons.
Sports traditions that fans cherish as seasonal rites may be gone for good or at least as long as the COVID-19 virus keeps rearing its ugly head into our lives.
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