Inside the NHL
As expected, the NHL pushed back until Jan. 1 the anticipated start of the coming season before the ensuing one in which the Kraken will officially launch.
The 2020-21 campaign will now be played entirely in 2021 and must finish by mid-July so NHL partner NBC can broadcast the Olympic Games in Tokyo. That doesn’t leave much time to get NHL games in, while the prospect of the Kraken launching the 2021-22 season in November or December of next year seems inevitable.
Of greater concern to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is how this coming season will play out.
“We really haven’t focused precisely on what we’re going to be doing next season,” Bettman said on NHL Network before the start of the league’s draft last Tuesday. “I think it’s fairly clear that while Dec. 1 has always been a notional date, we’re focused on the fact that we’re really looking now at Jan. 1 to start the season up. Our hope is to have a full season, full regular season, and to have fans in the building, but there are a lot of things that have to transpire, many of which, if not most of which, are beyond our control before we can finalize our plans.’’
So, it benefits the NHL to delay the previously planned Dec. 1 season opener to get a better gauge on fans returning to arenas. The NHL is more gate-driven than other “Big 4” men’s leagues and lost hundreds of millions in revenue by shortening its 2019-20 regular season and staging playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto bubbles.
While successful in that no players tested positive for COVID-19, quarantining some for nearly two months wasn’t ideal. It also isn’t very sustainable revenue-wise if the goal is to play an 82-game schedule.
But when Bettman mentions things out of his control, look no further than what the Canadian government will allow. While the U.S. is all over the map in terms of sports and pandemic restrictions – while also leading the planet in COVID-19 cases and deaths – Canada has been much tougher and is still tightening rules amid a feared “second wave” of outbreaks.
That’s a big deal because the 31-team NHL has seven Canadian squads. Forget about fans in arenas for a minute; Bettman knows his American teams likely won’t be allowed across the border for non-bubble play come January.
It isn’t helping that Major League Baseball had early COVID-19 outbreaks when it played outside a bubble. Now, the NFL schedule is being rendered a mess in a sport that – much like hockey – doesn’t lend itself to social distancing as well as baseball.
The NFL postponed the contest this week between New England and Denver after a positive COVID-19 test by a Patriots player. That came a week after four Patriots – including quarterback Cam Newton – tested positive.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans are finally due to play Tuesday against Buffalo after being sidelined two weeks in the aftermath of 24 positive tests by players and staff. Fortunately, nobody is yet known to have died from these outbreaks, though it’s unclear whether players spread COVID-19 beyond their immediate team circles.
And that’s the big problem the NHL faces in persuading the Canadian government and provincial public health authorities that allowing games outside of bubbles won’t pose a risk to the citizenry. Unlike here in the U.S., university and collegiate sports were cancelled in Canada throughout this past year.
The Canadian Football League did not play for the first time in its 62-year history after it couldn’t financially arrange a safe enough bubble of games played entirely in Winnipeg. Canada’s immigration department also refused to allow the Toronto Blue Jays to play at Rogers Centre against visiting MLB teams, forcing their relocation to Buffalo, New York, for a season.
While the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League tried resuming this month – the only one to do so of three Canadian major junior circuits, including the Western Hockey League that encompasses the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips – it has been disastrous. The Sherbrooke Phoenix suspended operations after eight positive COVID-19 tests on the heels of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada doing the same following 18 such cases.
Also, the league’s teams have dealt with government shutdowns of sport in various COVID-19 “hot zones” in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. The QMJHL spans four provinces total, with Quebec teams for now limited to playing in that province while Maritime squads are competing only in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
The WHL and Ontario Hockey Leagues have planned Dec. 1 launches, but it’s unclear whether those will move forward.
So, that’s the landscape the NHL faces.
At best, it appears to be looking at starting the season with short-term regional bubble zones in Canada and the U.S., where a bunch of games can be played early on by teams within their respective countries without crossing borders. It’s also possible Canadian teams could temporarily relocate to U.S. cities, though that appears less likely.
Remember, the Canadian NHL presence isn’t like the Blue Jays being a lone MLB representative. Canadian teams form roughly a quarter of the NHL, Canadian players are its largest demographic and Canadian television revenue is bigger than what the NBC deal generates.
So, the league is taking a wait-and-see approach. It will likely start in bubbles, hoping new cases subside and there’s more vaccine progress that could allow some arena attendance later.
If the season finishes by July, a proper offseason likely pushes the Kraken’s debut back at least to November 2021. But there’s going to be much trial and error in between before we know what that debut will even look like.
For now, the NHL will allow other leagues to commit the “error’’ portion of their pandemic sports approach and hope not to repeat mistakes as it tries to build on its perfect record of zero positive tests.