When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has something in his head, trying to make him look at anything else, even common sense, seems to be an impossible task. His negotiating tactics with the NHLPA for every CBA under his reign has been to lock down players and he’s even proven that he’s willing to lose an entire season to suit his or the owners’ “needs”. But don’t ask him to take this COVID-19 seriously. That he won’t. He refuses to shut down this season, preferring instead to make the players play in empty arenas throughout the summer and delaying next season instead of doing what every other professional league as done: the right thing by shutting down.
So here we are, facing a stubborn Commissioner and the reality that he will make happen what he has set his mind to do. Reputable insiders like Pierre LeBrun and Elliott Friedmann (amongst others) have been keeping up on the discussions between the league and its players and it seems like an announcement could be coming in the next few days, or weeks, of some sort of 24-teams playoffs tournament to determine the 2019-2020 Stanley Cup winners. Great… in spite of going against any common sense, it seems.
NHL teams, as we know, are spread throughout two Countries: Canada and the United States. The NHL players come from all over the world. While Canada is doing relatively well (particularly BC and Alberta), the same cannot be said about the USA or elsewhere in the world. For those reasons, the International borders are closed. Airlines have been laying off employees as the demand for flying has greatly diminished. I mean, who in their right mind would want to get on an airplane with a bunch of strangers from all over the world at the risk of contracting this deadly virus?
While US President Donald Trump has been pushing to reopen the borders, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to do so. Trudeau specifically addressed the NHL situation just a few days ago, stating that “NHL players would need to follow quarantine before season could resume“. This means that any player (or teams) coming into Canada would have to be in quarantine for 14 days, assuming that Canada Border Services allows them in as right now, as only essential travels are allowed. This means no practice, no groupings. Full quarantine. It cannot be more clear. So players, coaches, scouts coming to Canada from Europe and over the world? 14 days quarantine. Players, coaches, GMs and other staff coming from the US? 14 days quarantine.
As it stands at the time of writing this, the border restrictions prohibiting non-essential travel between the U.S. and Canada will stay in effect through June 21. It’s the second time Trudeau has extended the restrictions since they were first put into place on March 18. Who knows if they’ll be extended furthermore? This pretty much prevents teams from flying over the border, right?
Fine. In order to avoid international travels, the NHL could decide to play this 24-teams playoffs’ tournament either in Canada or in the US (not both). It’s fair to assume that this would be the way the NHL will address the political and travel hurdle.
But what about fans? Well folks, assuming that you don’t have anything better to do in the summer than to watch hockey (big assumption, even more so in the US in non-traditional hockey markets), you better have a computer, a radio or a TV handy as you won’t be able to go watch games live. Any player, or even viewer and listener, will tell you that half the excitement of playoffs’ hockey is the atmosphere in the arenas, fans chanting, cheering, signing, being loud for their home team. It’s electric. Look – and listen – to this video from the Bell Centre.
Players want crowds. They need crowds. Visiting teams take it as a challenge to silence the crowd, home teams try to feed off of it. Can you imagine watching or listening to a hockey game without a crowd? A goal is scored and all you hear is a bull horn? A goalie makes a great save and… crickets? It simply wouldn’t be hockey… or pro sports for that matter. I mean even in minor hockey, you have parents cheering.
“Playing in empty arenas would be awful as a player. We do it for our teammates obviously, for the organization but you also do it for your fans. To perform in front of an empty stadium would be terrible. We just talked about that this morning. There would be no life, it would be dead out there. I mean how do you get the crowd going or anything like that? It would definitely be weird.” ~ Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks (March 2020)
We’ve heard people saying that NHL owners insist on starting again because of greed. Some use the same argument for the players. My question is what makes NHL owners and players greedier than, let’s say, NBA owners and players, whose season was cancelled? If anything, there’s more money lost in the NBA than in the NHL.
Normally, in the playoffs, players aren’t getting paid to play. They play for the Stanley Cup, for honours and that’s in big part why it makes for better hockey. But after losing out on a bunch of money by not finishing the season, rest assured that it’s unlikely that players would go back after such a long layoff and play for free. So the fact remains that all revenues will be pretty much be coming from broadcast rights but even then, those are already sold. No revenues at the gates, souvenir shops, concessions, parking… and they will likely have to pay players. So really, how much revenue are we talking about for the owners? Enough to make it worth the risk? Bettman seems to think so. But he’s shown over and over again that he can’t care less about the players, whether it’d be with lockouts and/or rule changes.
One of the things that we’ve learned about the Coronavirus is that some people are more susceptible to catch it than others. Anyone prone to heart and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and other pre-existing health issues are more vulnerable to suffer serious complications, even death if they are subject to the virus.
We have had a few instances in recent years where players have suffered from previously undetected heart problems, more recently the case of St. Louis Blues defenseman and Team Canada studd Jay Bouwmeester, who suffered a cardiac episode on the bench during a game in Anaheim.
And then there’s the players (and staff) we already know are more at risk. In Montreal, what if Max Domi was exposed to this awful disease? In case you’ve lived under a rock, Max has been living with Type-1 diabetes. I’m sure there are many other players around the NHL who are more vulnerable than others and even without international travel, those players will be staying in hotels, will be in contact with hotel staff, restaurants, transports, reporters and so on. The NHL could open themselves up to some serious allegations and potential lawsuits. But Bettman is a lawyer apparently, so he must know that… right?
I think that we can all agree, playoffs’ hockey is a lot more intense than regular season’s. Players play injured, sometimes aggravating injuries just to try helping their team win the elusive Stanley Cup. In normal time, players enter those playoffs in top shape, after a gruelling 82 games season. The last NHL games were played on March 11th. Yes, they were told to keep in shape but they can’t even gather with other players to have scrimmages. Even in the off-season, they keep in better shape!
So the NHL will give them a couple of weeks of practice – if that – in order to return in somewhat “game shape”, then will be asked to perform at the peak of their abilities, for a playoffs’ tournament. It will have been 2 ½ – 3 months since they’ve been on the ice.
This folks is a total recipe for disaster. For one, the caliber of hockey will be down big time. Timing will be off, players out of shape and the risk of injuries – serious injuries – will be sky high. But Bettman and the owners don’t care about that. What if Carey Price wrecks his knee and needs surgery, missing most of next season? Will starting again have made it worthwhile for the Montreal franchise? What if the Oilers lose Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl to a serious injury jeopardizing their next season? Think about it folks. I makes absolutely zero sense… except for Bettman and the owners. Go Habs Go!