Last night, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Tampa Bay Lightning with the 2020 Stanley Cup.
If it was your job to provide a soundtrack for Bettman’s entry onto the carpet-covered ice immediately prior to the presentation, you could have gone with history and played a bunch of boos. But job security is no sure thing these days, and while it might have proved funny, it probably was a wise job choice to refrain. A clever person might have used a cheering sound, possibly helpful if one wanted a promotion. Alas, there was no special sound, certainly no cheering. Perhaps there should have been.
The 2019-20 NHL season has concluded and the victor is the commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman.
A Challenging Playoffs
Sure the Tampa Bay Lightning were deserving Cup winners, while the Dallas Stars put up a gallant effort to get to the Final. But nothing came easy for the teams or the league.
By restarting the NHL season, the often booed commissioner did something many people questioned. Including myself, so now I have to offer up my mea culpa. I was wrong.
The difficulty in pulling off a late regular season finish and a full playoffs without having COVID-19 infect the proceedings was a long shot. And no doubt, luck played a role in the success.
But credit the league with a number of “best chance to succeed” decisions. Pulling Las Vegas out of the equation and moving the bubbles to Toronto and Edmonton were both smart choices. Having two bubbles for 24 teams was another wise call, allowing games to happen in rapid succession. This enabled the bubble to shrink down quickly. Testing processes mattered, and they improved enough to make it work. Credit the league with a smart restart, giving any teams close to a playoff spot a shot to get into the 16-team tournament. Things happened quickly, lowering risks. That speed didn’t compromise the key aspect of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the integrity of the championship itself.
Gary Bettman and Leadership Matters
Credit goes to the players and team staffs for pulling this off, but the league’s leadership had to set the rules, then sell it to the players that it could all work. The league even went one step further, updating the collective bargaining agreement with the players union. This only happens in an atmosphere of trust. This also mattered.
Preventing COVID-19 is not that difficult in the abstract. What it requires is enormous vigilance and discipline across a large number of people and an extended period of time. One case could have disrupted everything.
In the end, the NHL ran over 30,000 COVID-19 tests, and once the bubble approach started, the league managed nine consecutive weeks without a single positive result.
It is said that it is ‘better to be lucky than good’. The NHL had to be both. And they were.
Whether the league accomplished other goals is perhaps less clear. The television ratings have been acceptable, but with limited live sports and scant new programming, this was a chance to gain fans. It doesn’t appear this happened. Further, the costs of producing these games was substantial, and without any ticket revenue, actual profits might be hard to find. Still, successfully hosting the league’s premier event is a major win for the league.
Next Level Challenges
The challenges the NHL has to navigate going forward are not trivial. The NHL season has shifted and decisions are required about how future seasons should be handled. This includes whether the starting and ending points for an NHL season should eventually return to early October and early June respectively. COVID-19 was not welcome, but now that the league has undergone change, perhaps some long standing norms merit a fresh examination.
Further, COVID-19 remains an issue and many venues will not handle fans in the upcoming season. Many of the factors which worked in the success of this NHL playoff season are not options for an NHL regular season.
But for now, cheers are in order for Gary Bettman. Even if they are piped in and virtual.
He’s earned them.