The National Hockey League deserves a lot of credit for how it handled the 2020 playoffs. When the league and the rest of the sports world shut down in March due to the pandemic, many doubted the season would be salvageable.
The league created a format that prioritized safety while making sure the sport kept its integrity. The end result was zero players testing positive for the virus as the Tampa Bay Lightning rolled to a Stanley Cup championship.
Many spectacular moments occurred in both the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles.
The Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets engaged in an improbable five-overtime battle. Anton Khudobin fought in between the pipes for the Dallas Stars when Ben Bishop was unable to suit up. And an exciting, youthful Vancouver Canucks squad, led by Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Thatcher Demko, put the hockey world on notice.
The list of phenomenal performances by teams and players goes on and on.
However, as compelling as the hockey was, something felt off about these playoffs. It was noticeable every time the puck was dropped, a shot went in or a massive hit was delivered.
The buildings were all too quiet.
The lack of non-essential team personnel permitted in the arena made for a hollow experience in multiple ways, the first and most poignant being that having real fans in the stands brought a level of energy that simply cannot be replicated. The passion bellowing throughout a hockey rink right before a critical playoff game is goosebump-inducing.
Nothing gets the home crowd standing quite like when their fourth-line winger barrels through their opponents’ star scorer. A wave of vigor bellows through the arena. The players feed off of the fans just as much as the other way around.
In these playoffs, when there were bone-crunching checks and clutch goals potted, the only audible reaction was from the players. The hockey was competitive and entertaining, no doubt. However, the fire that the fans bring night in and night out was severely missed.
The only people more disappointed in the empty venues than the ticket holders were the guys actually on the ice.
Another place where the absence of fans affects the league is the NHL’s front office. Ticket sales are a significant part of the league’s total revenue. It relies on gate capital more than the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.
With the NHL not making any money at the box office since March, it is clear it would not be able to survive another year without fans in attendance. While this bubble was executed brilliantly by the league, it is obviously not a sustainable model for the 2020-2021 campaign.
The last reason the bubble plan lacked a traditional playoff atmosphere has to do with something that did not directly alter the play on the ice or the league’s bottom dollar. It was more impactful than that.
For life in the bubble, playoff elimination was the ultimate bittersweet experience. On one hand, these players had to come to grips with the reality that they will not be fulfilling their dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup in victory. However, many were then allowed to see their families after several weeks away from them.
The biggest problem with the NHL bubble is that family members living in the U.S. were not allowed into the area. That is ridiculous considering Canada allowed the players to come in from America but not their family members who were living with them. It is baffling that the league could not find a system to test family members the same way as the players.
Canadian politics aside, it is beyond unnatural what these players went through being away from their families for that long. After the bubble began, only a few players chose to leave to reunite with loved ones, including Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask leaving the Toronto bubble to attend to a family situation.
It is not possible for the players to compete the way they would have if they were living at home during the playoffs. They must live isolated from all other than those within their teams’ organization.
That is why the Stars suffered the most gut-wrenching loss in the history of the Stanley Cup Finals: after having to be away from family for what must seem like an eternity, these players do not even get to lift Lord Stanley.
The NHL did basically all you could have asked of them after getting dealt this unfortunate hand. However, this was far from your run-of-the-mill NHL postseason. While this was the setup that had to be implemented during the wild year that is 2020, let’s keep our fingers crossed we never have to do it again.