On March 12, 2020, the NHL followed many other major professional sports leagues and suspended its season. It was an inevitability, but the timing was spurred by an NBA player testing positive for coronavirus. In the league’s official statement, Commissioner Gary Bettman was nevertheless hopeful and called it a ‘pause’. The goal? To resume play as soon as appropriate, guided by medical advice.
It’s now been almost 3 months and pro sports are slowly returning. The Bundesliga is back. The Premier League players are getting their boots ready. The NBA has a plan to finish its season (at Disney World, no less). But what about the NHL? How should we view the potential return to the ice?
The Current Plan
The NHL’s Phase 2 is currently underway. That means limited workouts in small groups, all done within the confines of a team’s vetted facilities. This involves both off and on-ice training. The league released a 21-page document to teams and players, outlining the guidelines for a safe return to practice.
Phase 3, which includes the full opening of training camps, will happen no sooner than July 10. Phase 4, which is what the fans are all asking about, is the return to action proper. The league plans to run a Qualifying Round and Seeding Round Robin, before launching a more familiar playoff format. This essentially means that the regular season has been axed, with teams instead running a compressed mini-league and playoff competition.
Gary Bettman has stressed that these plans are all subject to the developing circumstances. While Covid-19 seems to be on the downturn for now, a second peak is very much expected and we’re definitely not out of the woods yet. And the fact that a handful of players tested positive recently shows just how quickly things can change. If everything goes according to plan, however, expect the NHL to run through the summer and early fall.
The Fans’ Opinion
Fans want the puck back, period. Hitting the play button on the NHL is not just about hockey. It’s about returning to a ritual, a sense of normality in the midst of the pandemic. Discussing last night’s game over a (virtual Zoom) beer with your friends. Placing a hopeful NHL playoff wager on the lowest seed, cheering for the underdog to make the game more interesting. Putting on your favorite player’s jersey and watching a few hours of action on the ice, forgetting the daily grind.
Most hockey fans were more than understanding when the NHL decided to hit the pause button on the season back in March. Covid-19 is a major pandemic and with most of the world going into lockdown, professional sports were understandably shelved.
But now? Fans are keen to see action return to the ice, even if it means without the usual bells and whistles. As long as the league can do so safely, most fans vote for the players to don their skates once more. In fact, according to an SB Nation poll, 71% of fans want the 2019-2020 season completed. This feeling is seemingly shared with sports fans around the globe, with football fans in Europe, for example, feeling similarly passionate about the return of their favorite sport.
What Do the Players Think?
Opinion differs when it comes to when, how, or even if to restart the NHL season. ESPN spoke to two players in May, however, and their feelings were clear: return to the ice, but only if the health of the players, staff, and fans are at the forefront of every decision.
Connor Carrick, a defenseman for the New Jersey Devils, also cited social responsibility as a reason for returning. He feels that players should be willing to make a sacrifice and provide people with entertainment. NHL hockey may be able to give the fans some much-needed respite from the negativity of the news and current events. Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins has voiced similar opinions, admitting there are risks but as long as they are minimized he is looking forward to stepping back on the ice.
Will Covid-19 Have a Long-term Effect?
In short, it’s difficult to know. We’re still not sure of the exact configuration of the league’s return to action, nor do we know how fans will react in a post-lockdown world. Experts are projecting a loss of $220 million which, if true, would have severe financial effects on the league. As Mike Zigomanis and Scott McArthur of the Lead Off podcast discuss in-depth, it may lead to an overhaul of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). All we do know is that change to the NHL is inevitable, just like with every other sports league and franchise in the United States.
Main image credit:
Embed from Getty Images