The National Hockey League handled the COVID-19 pandemic as well as it could have in the 2020 playoffs. The Toronto and Edmonton bubble destinations and incorporation of a play-in tournament allowed the league to accomplish its goal of making it far enough to award the Stanley Cup — without seeing an outbreak.
However, it is clear the 2020-21 season will offer a new assortment of challenges for the league. The biggest concern will be the safety of the players. Their health and well-being has to be a priority — if not, the season will be in jeopardy.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has said a year-long bubble is not an option. That is the right call for many reasons.
Logistically, a league bubble would be impossible to pull off. The teams are too spread-out across North America for that to work. It is especially hard to fathom when factoring in the travel regulations between Canada and the United States. It would not be feasible to limit the seven Canadian teams to just squaring off against each other.
One intriguing option Bettman brought up was installing hub areas for a handful of organizations at a time. Instead of an all-in bubble, this would enable the NHL to take on a hybrid format.
In this plan, teams would play in a bubble for about 10 days. They would get in as many contests as possible, be tested frequently and not have to travel. Then after a number of days, they will go back to their homes and be with their families.
This plan involves some phenomenal risk-mitigation tactics, the first being that once a player is in this hub, travel is eliminated. There is a much greater risk of an outbreak once airplanes and hotels are involved.
Also, the players will not have to be away from their families for months at a time. The grind of living the same life, isolated in a bubble, until the end of the season was not easy. The NHL should do everything it can to avoid that situation again. Fortunately, it seems the league understands that a season-long bubble is not practical.
Another issue the NHL will have to address is how, and if, in-person fans will be a part of the season. On average, the league makes about 38 percent of its annual revenue from ticket sales. The league also takes a hit on its television deals because a significant portion of viewership watches the Canadian broadcasts.
Although professional baseball, basketball and football also take a blow from empty venues, the problem makes a much greater impact on the NHL. The league cannot sustain a season without any ticket sales. It will have to incorporate some aspect of a live-viewing experience into this campaign.
Obviously, the U.S. is not ready for 24 hockey arenas to be packed for every game. But by the time the season is set to start in January, areas of the country that have low case totals should have some fans in the stands. The league and the fans need to have some element of normalcy this season, and that starts with having some people take in a live hockey game.
Bettman also laid out his desire to start the 2021-22 regular season next fall. That is an important decision because the league cannot afford to be playing catch-up and constantly delaying the season opener for the next couple of years.
Constant delays would also have a disastrous effect on free agency, the draft and TV ratings.
The NHL needs to get back on its October-to-June schedule as soon as possible. Without a return to a normal hockey calendar, the league might take years to recover.
A lot of moving parts are involved, obviously, and many of these decisions have not yet been made. It is painfully clear this upcoming season will not be just a regular year. However, the league should try to emphasize normalcy as much as possible. There are aspects the NHL should implement to try to make this year like any other.
It will be interesting to see what the league’s 2020-21 campaign looks like, sounds like and feels like. Whatever the circumstances, hockey fans around the world will soon be enjoying the thrilling grind that is the NHL regular season.