March 12, 2020 was supposed to feature a 10-game slate in the NHL.
But with the coronavirus quickly spreading throughout North America and the world, it was becoming clearer in the days leading up to that Thursday that the NHL schedule might be disrupted.
Little did we know a year ago today that the Kings’ 3-2 win over the Senators would the final game of the 2019-20 regular season, and that hockey would not return for 143 days.
“Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup,” read the press release announcing that the NHL was pausing the 2019-20 season.
It’s been 365 days now since the pause, and the NHL was able to crown a champion after holding the most unique Stanley Cup Playoffs ever. Teams are now back to playing in their own arenas with fans slowly beginning to return in most markets.
But, like the rest of the world, the NHL is still dealing with COVID-19 pandemic on a daily basis.
“It’s almost hard to believe we’ve all been at this for a year and we’re still not done,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during a media conference Thursday. “We have had to live this day to day. We have had to react to things on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s positive tests, whether it’s contact tracing, whether it’s postponing games and then rescheduling them, so we never really had an opportunity to say, “Boy, this is taking a long time.'”
Nearly 40 NHL games this season have been postponed due to virus-related issues and that has wreaked havoc on the schedule. Some teams have been forced into prolonged breaks and a remaining schedule that will see their depth tested.
While the games continue on, there are still questions about the future.
• How will the NHL navigate the U.S.-Canada border closure when we get to the Stanley Cup Semifinals and the North Division winner has to face off against an American side? Talks continue with the Canadian government, but no deadline has been set. The third round is expected to begin mid-June.
“We’ve got a little bit of time to deal with this,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “I can’t certainly promise any result, and we’ll work through the process and we’ll see what the result is and we’ll respond appropriately. But in terms of timeline, I don’t think there’s any kind of firm deadline that we have to meet to accomplish a change in plans if that’s necessary.”
• Will the current division alignment stay? Can we expect the all-Canadian North Division to be a thing beyond this season?
Don’t hold your breath. The division alignment and playoff format are more than likely a one-season thing.
“What we’re finding is two-thirds of our fans enjoyed what we did this year and about two-thirds of the fans think we should go back to what we have had more traditionally,” said Bettman. “And I think that’s about right. I think fans were very understanding and even excited in some respects about what we had to do in this unique season, but I think our traditional alignment makes more sense and is more widely accepted.”
The unique scheduling matrix is something that might just stick around. It’s been widely praised, and it saves on travel costs and wear and tear on players. It’s something that should be discussed when planning for 2021-22 (which will include the Seattle Kraken).
• The Lake Tahoe outdoor games were scenic and gave us beautiful images of the Sierra Nevada in the distance from the 18th fairway at Edgewood Tahoe Resort. But outdoor games are money makers for everyone involved, and the lack of fans is not something the league sees happening in the future at these events.
“As beautiful as the setting was and the fact that Sunday night’s game I think was the most viewed game on NBC Sports Network ever, our game is about the fans,” Bettman said. “And as interesting, as beautiful, as intriguing as the setting was, I think our focus when we can will go back to having fans at the outdoor games in record numbers, which is what we’ve traditionally done.”
• Will NHL players participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics? As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners will allow players to play as long as a deal can be hashed out with the IIHF and IOC. Right now, however, the IOC’s focus is pulling off the Tokyo Games this summer.
“The IOC right now has its hands full in terms of finalizing plans for what Tokyo looks like and while they have noted that this issue — hockey and the NHL and NHL players’ potential participation — is kind of the radar screen and something that has to be dealt with, substantively they’re not yet in a position to do that,” Daly said. “So the [IOC] commitment is to engage with the IIHF in the not too distant future, but once they have done what they need to do with Tokyo.”
• More and more teams are welcoming a limited number of fans back into arenas for games. It’s nowhere near close to full, rocking buildings again, but it’s a sign that with the vaccine rollout, we’re slowing headed toward what we remember as “normalcy.”
“Obviously the key for us, at some point in time, for normalcy is having fans in our buildings and being able to host fans in our buildings,” Daly said. “Not in limited numbers, but in large numbers. The world keeps changing and we’ll change with it.
“Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later.”