There remains a great deal of hope that the 2019-20 NHL season can be salvaged in some shape or form.
For hockey fans, it’s about sentiment and perhaps seeing live sports entertainment some time in the foreseeable future. For the league itself, it’s about business. The players have been paid their final cheques for games not played, although the owners know any overpayment on their part will be evened out through escrow.
But that’s just the start of it. With a vaccine for the coronavirus unlikely before the first quarter of 2021, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to envision a scenario in which hockey or any other contact sport can safely resume before then.
Sure, you could try to play NHL games without fans in the stands. But if one player tests positive he would immediately require quarantining, as would all the other players on his team, the coaches, the trainers and the referees. Probably the ice scrapers and Zamboni driver as well.
It just wouldn’t work. It also seems unlikely that the NHL Players’ Association, despite its traditional focus on money rather than workplace safety, would be willing to play along.
So this discussion, realistically, becomes more about the 2020-21 season, despite whatever phoney encouragement Gary Bettman may have received from U.S. President Donald Trump during a commissioners-only call on Saturday.
Golf? Maybe. Tennis? Remotely possible. But for the NHL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL and CFL, competition in a vaccine-absent world seems almost impossible to imagine.
For the NHL, there are lots of logistical questions, from the status of the 2020 and 2021 drafts to free agency to what this might mean for existing player contracts.
Beyond that, however, is a much larger issue: Will all 31 teams survive?
For the first time since the Cleveland Barons called it quits in 1978 and folded into the Minnesota North Stars, there seems a distinct possibility that this pandemic pause might force one or more teams to cease operations.
The NHL’s existing teams are on a surer footing than some other leagues because there is a salary-cap system and revenue sharing in place. That said, if all revenue dries up until the fall of 2021, it would put extreme pressure on several NHL teams. Selling or moving becomes massively problematic if the league isn’t operating.
We’ve already seen signs of distress as teams lay off personnel and require large salary cuts by senior team executives after only a few weeks of inactivity. Boston’s billionaire owner Jeremy Jacobs has taken a lot of criticism for the tough measures he’s already taken, but that also may be evidence of an experienced owner taking a cold, calculated estimate of the economic apocalypse that lies ahead.
NFL teams are in a profitable position before they even play a game because of television. But that’s not the case for the NHL, which leans heavily on ticket sales, private box revenue, food and catering income, sponsorships and merchandise sales. Many teams have significant arena lease costs. Some of the biggest stars have front-loaded contracts, which means they may have already been paid the bulk of their salaries. Big bonuses may be due this summer, whether there is a conclusion to the ’19-20 season or not.
The majority of NHL teams these days are owned by extremely rich individuals or large corporations. Financial pressures from other businesses may nonetheless put more focus on their NHL holdings if there is no hockey revenue.
So which teams could be in trouble?
The first one that comes to mind is Ottawa. A small-market team with diminishing attendance, last in the NHL with well under 13,000 per game. There have already been rumours that the Senators might one day have to move, all quickly dismissed by owner Eugene Melnyk. He’s been focused on trying to get a deal for a new arena.
The good news is that the Senators have already slashed player costs by getting rid of expensive veterans such as Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene in recent seasons. The bad news is that Melynk is disliked and distrusted in the nation’s capital, where the local government is unlikely to come to his financial rescue if he is unable to fund the team.
The Sens have also inadvertently demonstrated how difficult it will be to get the NHL up and running again. Eight members of the organization, including two players, have tested positive for COVID-19. The infections may have occurred during the team’s final road trip to California before the season was suspended.
Arizona and Florida, 28th and 29th in NHL attendance, would also face challenges with an extended shutdown.
The fragile Coyotes’ story is well known, and even the acquisitions of star forwards Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel improved attendance only slightly this season.
The Panthers have a deep-pocketed owner in Vinnie Viola and have vowed to keep paying workers. But that’s a money-losing operation, and the losses will become even more significant. Billionaires run out of patience, too, and the stock market is doing no one any favours these days.
The Islanders have struggled without a permanent home. Carolina has been wobbly for years. New Jersey, Buffalo and Nashville could also face big financial challenges.
Knowing Bettman’s legendary determination to keep teams afloat and in the same city, he’ll fight to the death to keep all the existing teams alive. But he also knows Atlanta going out of business turned into a positive story for the league when the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg.
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Fewer teams could make the NHL stronger coming out of this crisis.
Ideally, a best-case scenario emerges in which the league gets to finish the 2019-20 season and begins next year only slightly behind schedule, and all the teams survive.
But this is hardly an ideal situation. For some NHL teams, it could become a question of staying alive.