The NHL – and it’s fans – are desperate for the season to start up again. But desperate doesn’t mean stupid. Early speculation has been superseded by new information, as you’d expect. While some are calling for the cancellation of the season, the Return to Play committee has been meeting regularly to work out how to do so safely. Not just safely, but in a way that works for players as well as owners and populations. Any location that lets the NHL play is going to demand that their populations remain safe. Obviously the NHL and NHLPA feel the same way for their players and staff. But to pretend losses of up to $1 billion league-wide would have no effect is, at best, naive. One solution is to finish the 2019-20 NHL season in Canada, and only Canada. Here’s why.
Finish the 2019-20 NHL Season in Canada
That the league and the players have to be on the same page is all well and good. But it is pointless if there is nowhere to play. Politics and politicians are going to play a pivotal role in when, where, and how professional sports resume.
Let’s Talk Hockey
Just getting onto the ice has plenty of hurdles, and foremost is proximity. For the occasional mention of somehow banning scrums or fights, there are still bodychecks, and battles in front of the net, and even just sitting on the bench. Then there’s the dressing room, showers, office meetings. Limiting exposure for players from each other is a non-starter. They will have to be tested on the way into whatever hermetically-sealed bubble is made for them.
Every team is going to bring support staff. Trainers, equipment managers, and several Black Aces ready to join the team in case of injury. Anyone moving into that bubble needs to be quarantined 14 days, so no point waiting for an injury replacement. At a conservative estimate, that’s at least 50 people per team. Even owners are likely left outside to reduce numbers.
Media adds its own wrinkle. Will there be multiple broadcasters, or a single in-house team producing the feed? Do play-by-play announcers need to be on location?
Let’s Talk Business
Hockey has long been on shakier ground than the other major North American sports, and their reliance on gate receipts means that playing games without fans in the stadiums makes it tougher to get an economic return. The AHL, for instance, has decided to cancel the season entirely without playoffs. If fans are not allowed to go to sporting events before their next season starts, it’s entirely possible that not all teams will return. But even at the NHL level, removing fans will eliminate as much as 50% of team revenue.
Ownership has to be considered as well. Yes, NHL owners are billionaires or close to it, but their money comes from somewhere. The Portland Winterhawks, one of the most successful junior teams in CHL history, are up for sale because of the economic impact of the pandemic on their owners. Even so, it sounds like the NHL wants, more than anything else, a normal-ish run of games next season. The reasoning is that the sooner a “return to normal” happens, the sooner there is a predictable flow of money. A decline now is more easily weathered when you can see an end to it. This would help the hundreds of businesses that count on the opening of the 2019-20 NHL season in Canada in their budget. Certainty is best, but for now, the next best thing is hope.
Let’s Talk Politics
While some towns might be talking about the economic benefits of having the NHL start up again, in this form (no fans, isolated players) any large-scale impact is going to be trivial. The more important consideration will be the health of the population and of the players. Politics is about image as much as anything else – it’s a cautious balance between the positive story against potential disaster. Testing is going to have to take place regularly, and lots of them. If players are seen as receiving special treatment there can easily be a backlash. The NHL has always been very sensitive about their image, and neither they nor local politicians want to be villains. It’s safe to say that the athletes would be more readily forgiven North of the border, where the start of the 2019-20 NHL season in Canada is virtually a national holiday. A city could have the most willing and capable staff, but if there is even a chance of hundreds of protesters showing up? That will probably take it off the list.
Part of getting special treatment would be movement, which is why the idea of “hub cities” is popular. Having a single location means not needing an exemption to cross the border between Canada and the US. And the less movement, the less opportunity to be exposed to COVID-19. The first notice we’ll likely have of something concrete happening will be European players coming to North America. They will have to remain in quarantine for two weeks, so they’ll come in as the last details are getting worked out.
Let’s Talk Pandemic
This is the most ambiguous detail. The disease itself is very contagious, that we know. People can be asymptomatic carriers. It’s a virus rather than a bacteria, which makes it far harder to eliminate because it’s not technically alive. While there are tests available, none of them are 100% certain – which isn’t a strike against them, but something to remember. Several different strains of vaccines are undergoing trials, but widespread availability is still months away at best.
Right now our best defence against spreading COVID-19 is separation and masks. If we limit the amount of movement, we can reduce exposure risks. On the plus side, the more localized our personal space is, the more reliably we can maintain it. Predictability is a real benefit here.
Historically speaking, pandemics have more than one wave to them. Whether the nations and states in North America have acted strongly enough to minimize later impacts is unknown. Different locations have taken different tactics, and how the NHL or NHLPA feels about those tactics will determine, in part, their next move.
Let’s Talk Schematics
Any plan right now has to remain vague. We just don’t know what the future holds, and a lot of it is going to depend on a virus. That almost certainly ends the regular season, leaving the NHL to go directly into the playoffs. Most popular right now is playing in hub cities, ie. bringing several teams to one spot and having mini-tournaments. The number of teams fluctuates almost daily, but either 20 or 24 are recurring numbers over the past few weeks. Any location will have to have a good location for players and staff while not draining resources locally. This means housing, food, and the ability to be at least partially self-sufficient. Any location will also need broadcasting facilities and rinks able to handle the workload. Lighting and sound that are fine live don’t necessarily translate well to television. Additionally, if worst comes to worst, what medical facilities are available if an outbreak happens?
On the other hand, so long as an arena can be isolated and cleaned and the sheet is regulation NHL size, it doesn’t actually matter where it’s located. And, in this case, size doesn’t matter either. No private boxes? No difference because no one’s using them. Seating only 10,000? That leaves 9,900 empty and literally hundreds of potential locations to set up cameras.
Some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 transmission in North America are in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. Alberta has a solid grip on their numbers and is testing vigorously. Nova Scotia not only has good numbers, but also an excellent facility in Halifax’s Scotiabank Arena.
If the NHL wants to use hub cities, they won’t be able to simply drop 20 or 24 teams in one spot. But using four or five locations is certainly possible. With the border between Canada and the US remaining a question mark, remaining in a single country makes sense. The games are without fans, so they can be played literally anywhere without any team taking a loss of revenue. And let’s not be modest, here: as far as PR goes, the league could do a lot worse than playing out the 2019-20 NHL season in Canada.
And as an added bonus? The Canadian dollar is currently at .71 US dollars. For teams trying to save money, an immediate 30% discount isn’t such a bad feature. On the other hand, if the NHL REALLY wants to make $1 billion? I can do that in two sentences:
“Our next expansion is a second team in Toronto. Bidding starts this Tuesday.”