It has been 25 days since the NHL decided to hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season, and voices are growing louder and more numerous in expressing concern about the potential for a conclusion to the campaign.
While the league has been conservative in making any declarations to that end — and the reality remains that local and national governments must lift restrictions on gathering and traveling before any more NHL hockey can be played — there have been some intriguing developments since our update last week. Get caught up here:
Has there been an update on when play could resume?
Emily Kaplan: The NHL has not wavered in its stance that it wants to resume play, even if it means playing for the Stanley Cup in August. But as the days go on, that seems less and less likely. The NHL’s board of governors is due to be updated on this during a Monday conference call.
On Saturday, Gary Bettman participated in a call with U.S. President Donald Trump and other professional sports commissioners. Trump reportedly told the commissioners that he hopes to have fans back in stadiums and arenas by August and September. That doesn’t really affect anything with the NHL’s plan, especially because it’s unclear if medical experts and local authorities view that as a realistic timeframe.
Another compounding issue for the NHL is figuring out how to resolve the regular season — either truncating the final three-and-a-half weeks or expanding the playoff field — and fit in a training camp to ensure players are in shape upon resumption. There are very few players who have access to ice right now due to broad lockdown mandates.
Another logistical aspect that is out of the NHL’s hands? Players who are currently overseas. Many European-born players returned to their home countries and will need to fly back to North America if the NHL resumes. We don’t know what air travel will be like over the next few months or if borders might be closed.
Kaplan: When that news was announced last week, I reached out to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and asked how it might impact the NHL’s return-to-play schedule. Daly said it was “too early” to say. “Still a rapidly evolving landscape we are dealing with,” he said. “There’s a long time between now and June 30.” The city of Toronto later clarified that the ban does not apply to sporting events.
On Friday, Calgary announced that it is implementing a similar ban until June 30 — and this one does include NHL and CFL games, if those leagues are able to resume. “Even if before the end of June we are in a situation where we think we’ve seen the other side of the mountain, even if we’re at a place where the number of cases are coming down, I’m no epidemiologist, but I don’t think it’s wise to say, ‘hey, everybody, let’s have 17, 20 or 35,000 people all in one space,'” Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said, according to the Canadian Press. “That’s probably just not wise from a public health perspective. Certainly between now and the end of June, I cannot imagine that you would see events like that starting up again.”
Will there come a time when the league won’t be able to squeeze in any semblance of a postseason?
Greg Wyshynski: Yes, but the NHL is adamant that the time to make a decision on that is much further down the road. Keep in mind that the NHL has explored building availability through July and August for its teams. Also, don’t underestimate how much the postponement of the Summer Olympics until 2021 opened a window for the NHL to play this summer. Not only does that clear scheduling conflicts for many television partners, but it also removes the almost insurmountable competition for fans’ attention if the season were to relaunch in late July.
As for the playoffs, the league’s first preference is to finish all or part of the remaining regular-season games, with around 189 games remaining on the schedule.
“Depending on where you play those games and the format, we have modelling on how long it would take. One scenario would be to play some regular-season games but not the full slate before you hit the playoffs. Obviously, you play as many games as you can play,” Daly said Saturday on TFP’s “The Hot Stove” on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.
The league is cognizant of the players’ desire to not jump right into the playoffs if the season is restarted, and keep in mind that the NHLPA has to sign off on any season format put forward.
“You’ve heard it from the players who have spoken publicly on the subject: They’d like to avoid, if they can, having two-and-a-half or three months off, coming back to a short training camp, and all of a sudden, they’re playing in playoff games,” Daly said. “We totally get that. We share that view. We do think there would be utility in playing out some portion of the regular season if we can do it.”
As noted previously in this space, all of these plans hang on local and federal restrictions on “shelter in place,” the operation of non-essential businesses, travel and mass gatherings — though that last restriction could be eased by holding games in empty buildings.
What’s the likelihood that the Stanley Cup playoffs are held in empty arenas?
Wyshynski: It’s a possibility. There are models being considered and planned by the league that involve games being played in arenas without fans. Some of those models involve playing in empty home arenas around the league, and others focus on the thing the NBA is considering: holding the postseason at a neutral-site venue. (The NBA is reportedly exploring a playoff tournament in Las Vegas this summer.)
Given the larger numbers of players and support staff for an NHL team vs. an NBA team, holding the postseason in a single venue isn’t the NHL’s preference. That could mean multiple venues for the early rounds of the playoffs, almost like “regionals” for teams. Think of it like the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto: playoff rounds with multiple teams playing at a single site, which would mean games could be staggered throughout the day at the venue. Depending on what the rest of the world looks like by then, playoff hockey every afternoon would be a welcome distraction, wouldn’t it?
Logically, a neutral-site playoff would ease the problems caused by inconsistent region-by-region restrictions, create a controlled environment for the athletes and reduce costs of travel for the teams. It would also get the playoffs on the air, creating revenue where there currently isn’t, which is good news for players and owners. What this plan doesn’t do is guarantee that there won’t be someone involved in the games who tests positive for COVID-19, and then all bets might be off.
Where could these neutral-site, empty-building games be played?
Wyshynski: It might not end up being in NHL arenas. From a television perspective, holding these games in cavernous, empty buildings might not make for the most aesthetically pleasing viewing experience. The opportunity would be there for the NHL to get creative in a smaller arena venue: Light it differently, present the on-ice action in a more dynamic way, and explore other made-for-TV innovations.
Obviously, whatever venue the league chooses would need to fit the dimensions and specifications for an NHL rink and have reasonably good facilities for the players and staff. All options are being considered to try to complete the season and ease the revenue hit.
Is there anything new on the revenue shortfall and the players’ escrow?
Wyshynski: Yes. The NHLPA will make a decision by Tuesday on what to do with their last paychecks, which they’re scheduled to receive April 15. There has been discussion internally among the players about putting all or some of these paychecks into escrow, which will be tapped to make up for the revenue shortfall this season for the owners. (Please recall the players and owners have a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue, and any shortfalls for either side are addressed after the season.) The thinking behind putting this check into escrow is to lessen the blow for next season, when the impact of this “pause” will continue to be felt by the players.
The NHLPA membership won’t have a formal vote on the matter. Rather, team reps will report on how their teammates are leaning. A source told ESPN that the vote on withholding the paychecks or collecting them could go either way, with veteran players likely less enthusiastic to give up the money currently owed them.
Coaches and players have been sharing updates on their situations in isolation. Any particularly notable stories?
Kaplan: Alex Ovechkin recently lamented the difficulties of training while being homebound. But he’s lucky: His longtime trainer, Pavel Burlachenko, is in the U.S. and continues to push the Washington Capitals star. “It’s kind of hard to push yourself. Sometimes I don’t want to do it, but he says, ‘OK, let’s go, we have to work out,'” said Ovechkin, whose family recently starred in a Russian music video that implored people to remain at home.
Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty recently offered some isolation tips to ESPN, including how he’s staying in game shape: “Impossible to fall out of game shape if you were never really in game shape to begin with.”
Meanwhile, Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet is keeping fit by rollerblading. But he found out the hard way to not “get cocky,” sporting a nasty scrape on his arm after taking a tumble.
Have any more players tested positive?
Kaplan: The Ottawa Senators announced this week that four more members of the organization who were part of their California road trip in March tested positive for COVID-19, but they have recovered. The Senators previously said two of their players had tested positive.
The only other known coronavirus cases among NHL players are two members of the Colorado Avalanche. On a video call this week, Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said he has been in contact with both of his teammates who tested positive. “It took a while for us to find out that a couple of the guys had tested positive,” Landeskog said. “But from the conversations I’ve had, they are recovering well.”
Wyshynski: Some were surprised when Jones posted his return to the ice on social media. He skated at the Blue Jackets’ facility and proclaimed that it was good to be back on skates after “eight long weeks.”
Jones had been out since Feb. 8 because of an ankle injury, and the NHL made an exception in its self-isolation edict — which runs through April 15 — for injured players who need access to team facilities for rehab.
When can we expect other players to return to use teams’ facilities?
Wyshynski: The “when” is a mystery. The “how” is the question the NHL is currently grappling with, insofar as making it equitable to all teams.
“We’re going to see where we are in terms of even being able to open facilities to players,” Daly said. “Once we get to a point where restrictions are lifted in some markets but not in others, we have to also give consideration to what’s fair from a competitive standpoint, if we hope to resume to play this year, giving certain clubs and players legs up over others.”
What’s the latest on team and league employee compensation?
Kaplan: We’ll start with the good news. Anaheim Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli announced this week that they will pay their 2,100 part-time employees across all of their sports and event management companies through June 30 for work that has been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus. That’s significant because it includes the Honda Center, as well as two large ice complexes in Orange County. The Samuelis also own the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls, and a restaurant and brewery across from the Honda Center.
“The Samueli family’s primary concern is the welfare of their employees,” Anaheim Arena Management CEO Tim Ryan said. “Today is another example of their kindness, generosity and support for the local community. As a result of their decision, 2,100 dedicated part-time staff members will have one less immediate concern during this significant health crisis.”
The Senators, meanwhile, implemented temporary layoffs and salary reductions on Sunday, the day after the NHL regular season was supposed to end. Those not laid off could be placed on furlough; however, health benefits will continue uninterrupted. “We will pull through by staying committed together,” owner Eugene Melnyk said. “I look forward to the day when it is safe to reopen our doors and welcome back employees, fans and community partners.”
Have there been any more sizable donations from players or teams this week?
Wyshynski: A trio of Russian players stepped up for their U.S. communities. New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin donated 1,500 N95 masks to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov and his teammates donated 3,000 masks to Northwell Health system on Long Island. Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky donated $100,000 to help BB&T Center workers impacted by the season pause.
The Vegas Golden Knights announced an initiative that will provide more than 7,500 meals to doctors, nurses and employees at local hospitals who are working to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Melnyk, meanwhile, has offered the free use of the Canadian Tire Centre, its parking lots and three Sensplex arenas as temporary care centers to fight the pandemic.
Finally, give us some content to consume while we’re isolating.
Kaplan: Right before the NHL paused its season — and our daily routines were upended — my friend Kajsa Kalmeus was visiting Chicago. Kajsa was raving about the book “Beartown” by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. I typically don’t read a ton of fiction, but I borrowed it from the library anyway. I’m so glad I did. “Beartown” is about a small, remote community in Sweden and the junior hockey team which is its livelihood. It definitely has a “Friday Night Lights” vibe. “Beartown” is a book about hockey culture, but what struck me the most was that it felt like it could take place anywhere: a small town in Canada, the U.S. or anywhere in Europe. Disclaimer: I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m truly enjoying it so far.
Wyshynski: I didn’t read “Little Fires Everywhere,” and I understand fans of the book aren’t totally down with the adaptation on Hulu. But five episodes in, I’m really digging this exploration of class, race, identity and the main reason you’ll want to watch it: the intensely satisfying work of Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, especially when they face off.
Meanwhile, if you’re a comic book fan: Marvel Unlimited, a digital comics service, has a made a bunch of classic story arcs free through the beginning of May, including “Civil War,” the Dark Phoenix Saga and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first volume of his run on “Black Panther.” If you’re interested in anteing up for some current books: Jonathan Hickman’s reinvention of “X-Men” in its current storyline, as well as his run on “New Mutants,” is some of the best work I’ve read in years. You’ll binge right through it.