NEW YORK — Watching games in empty arenas in the quarantined bubbles during the 2020 playoffs, the 2021 season and even in Canada earlier this year gave Gary Bettman even more of an appreciation for what NHL hockey is like in front of a sellout crowd.
“Our players get an extraordinary amount of energy and excitement form our fans and our full buildings,” the longtime commissioner said.
The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated their second of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships at home last summer in the middle of a packed house, but that was far from the norm everywhere. Their games in Montreal during that final came in front of a paltry crowd of 3,500 at Bell Centre, which is usually a raucous arena known for the best atmosphere in the league.
There won’t be playoff hockey there this spring, but in three other Canadian cities and 13 in the U.S., every building is expected to be full this time of year for the first time since 2019. After navigating the twists and turns of the pandemic, the NHL is back to pre-COVID-19 business levels, with the return to regular playoffs being a big reason for the league’s furious comeback.
“This is the ultimate return to normalcy,” Bettman said. “To have our full buildings and exciting games, what more could we ask for? Especially after what we’ve all been through the last two years.”
The NHL projected $5.2 billion in revenue at its annual Board of Governors meeting in December, with the salary cap set to rise $1 million next season after remaining flat since 2020. Even after the surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus forced teams north of the U.S.-Canada border to play with no fans or limited attendance, the league is on pace to surpass the $5 billion mark.
“Revenue wise, we did fine this year,” Bettman said. “We did basically what we were projecting. The impact of having buildings empty in Canada for some period of time had an impact — material for those clubs — but in terms of the $5-plus billion were going to do, it was only a very, very small part of that.”
Even before the Cup is handed out before the end of June, that’s a big win, especially after losing out on $3.6 billion when the 2019-20 season was cut short and operating in a deficit to play a shortened, 56-game season in 2021.
While Bettman often points out that ticket sales and other gate-related income makes up less than 50% of the league’s business, the pandemic spurred more creativity in unearthing extra revenue sources. Ads were added to players’ helmets, jersey patches are coming next season and this is the first of seven-year U.S. media rights deals with ESPN and Turner Sports.
“More people are consuming the game,” said Bettman, who added TV ratings are up 18% and streaming numbers even more than that. “We’re at a point where people want what they want when they want it how they want it and that’s what we’re delivering, and that was what the underpinning of our new media deals in the U.S. were because we believed without chopping and dicing it too much, we wanted there to be access to our games in more places but easy to find.”
In person, there have been hiccups along the way to completing 1,312 games — the longest regular season in NHL history.
A total of 106 games were rescheduled for reasons ranging from the virus to weather and attendance limits in Canada. Dozens of games that would have been played in cold, empty arenas the middle of winter were pushed into the window created by bowing out of the Beijing Olympics and some beyond that to the point government officials greenlighted fans at full capacity.
When the Maple Leafs host the Lightning and the Oilers host the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night, they will be the first playoff games in Canada with full arenas since 2019. Leafs star and NHL leading goal-scorer Auston Matthews called the return of fans at full capacity “something that we’re all looking forward to.”
Perhaps it’s fitting Toronto and Edmonton are ushering back sellout crowds after those cities hosted the 2020 bubble playoffs. The 2022 postseason should be the furthest thing from those dark days, though the league is keeping an eye on potential border and virus issues that could crop up without warning.
Getting in a full, 82-game season for all 32 teams now after the addition of the Seattle Kraken is cause for celebration around the NHL, which is on track to finish the playoffs before July 1.
“All of that says we’re back,” Bettman said. “And it’s great to have our fans back. It’s great to have our game on a more normal schedule. A little bit later than usual, but we’ll fix that next year.”