Damien Cox: The NHL has a strange solution for these strange times, but it could work

There’s nothing wrong with being forced by extraordinary circumstances to come up with creative answers. As the various North American pro leagues ponder a variety of unusual scenarios to get their seasons started, or restarted, it’s worth remembering some of the makeshift solutions to unexpected problems over the course of sports history.

  • In 1932, freezing temperatures and several feet of snow at Wrigley Field in Chicago forced the NFL’s championship game to go indoors at Chicago Stadium, home of the Black Hawks. The Bears beat the Portsmouth Spartans for the title on a 60-yard field with special rules.
  • On many occasions the New York Rangers were forced out of Madison Square Garden by the circus during the playoffs. In 1932, they used Boston Garden for their “home” games in the Stanley Cup final. In 1940 and 1950, they used Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in the Cup final.
  • The fifth game of the infamous 1971 junior Eastern championship between Marcel Dionne’s St. Catharines Blackhawks and Guy Lafleur’s Quebec Remparts was played at a neutral site, Maple Leaf Gardens, after ugly incidents involving fans from both teams in the first four games. St. Catharines won the game in Toronto, but refused to go back to Quebec City and forfeited the series.
  • The Montreal Expos played 43 “home” games in Puerto Rico in the 2003 and 2004 seasons because of ownership and attendance issues in Montreal.
  • Hurricane Katrina forced the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets to play the entire 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons in Oklahoma City. The NFL Saints, meanwhile, split their 2005 home games between the Baton Rouge home of the LSU Tigers and San Antonio’s Alamodome, plus one at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

In all these situations, you could have argued that the integrity of the competition was being damaged. But sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

Obviously, playing the rest of the 2019-20 NHL season and the full playoffs before arenas full of fans is out. Can’t happen. At the same time, Bettman and the league’s 31 owners have obligations, notably to television rights holders. If the NHL can’t deliver a meaningful Stanley Cup playoff tournament, it might face having to let this season roll over on its deal with Rogers Communications. Instead of being able to negotiate a new deal after the 2026 playoffs, the NHL might have to wait until 2027.

NBC’s deal with the NHL, meanwhile, is scheduled to expire after the 2020-21 playoffs. If there’s no playoffs, NBC would get another season, you have to figure, and the NHL wouldn’t be able to negotiate the big increase that has been speculated upon until 2022.

So nobody can quibble with Bettman grasping at any and all possible scenarios, like playing tournament-style games in two to four NHL cities with no fans in attendance. The question becomes, however, what is the minimum necessary to have hockey fans and historians consider the NHL season to be complete and a Stanley Cup champion to be legitimate?

At this point, the regular season is Bettman’s least worry, at least in terms of what teams and fans care about. The season paused with about 21 teams in playoff contention; you’d have to allow all of them into the post-season, or play at least a few games to determine those that would move on. It’s an open question whether you’d even bother having the dregs of the league like Detroit and L.A. even bother to return to play any regular season games. You’re going to drag 200 players back to work to play a handful of games?

A more crucial question is exactly what would constitute a meaningful set of Stanley Cup playoffs.

For starters, you would need at least four rounds, if only to accommodate 16 or more teams. Anything less than four rounds would put an asterisk beside the name of the winner.

Each series would have to be at least two-of-three — the league used to have these in the 1970s, don’t forget — and the final would have to be a best-of-seven affair.

And what about sites? Given the erratic nature with which U.S. states are both being hit by the COVID-19 crisis and choosing how to deal with it, it seems unlikely all American-based franchises will be able to host games, even without fans in attendance. In Canada, you only have to worry about Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

Assuming you can get the NHL Players Association to sign off on a variety of special health provisions that would be necessary to have any games at all, it seems likely you would have some teams forced to play playoff home games either in the opposition rink or at a neutral site. This would be no different than what the circus once forced the Rangers to do on a fairly regular basis. There’s a competitive precedent there.

Of course, if the NHL goes the “hub” route, with two or more cities, most teams wouldn’t be playing in their home rinks. The good news under this scenario is that, with most NHL rinks close to identical these days, there would be very little home-ice advantage in any rink with no fans in attendance.

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Playing in August without fans won’t be a good scenario under any circumstance. It’s hard to imagine it would be good television. But you also have to understand Bettman’s business predicament.

So let’s say you can get a full four rounds of playoffs in with games played in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Carolina and Vegas. It would be strange, but it would produce a legitimate champion.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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