The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the “bubble playoffs”, were nothing short of an immense success for the NHL. The venture may have cost the league upwards of $90MM to put on and there were a few complaints after the fact about living conditions and scheduling, but the postseason was an incredible accomplishment for the league and players’ association. In the midst of a global pandemic, the NHL hosted 24 teams in two cities over two months, fielded a workable playoff structure and competitive match-ups that yielded a fair champion, all while receiving zero positive COVID-19 results out of more than 33,000 tests. It was as close to perfect execution as anyone could have expected.
Yet, the issues faced in planning the postseason are exponentially more difficult to tackle in mapping out how the 2020-21 regular season may proceed. As Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly tells The Athletic’s Michael Russo, “it’s going to be a challenge”:
It’s a totally different challenge and requires a whole bunch of different considerations that I think probably, in some respects, are more challenging than the (postseason) return to play plans. You need to gather as much information as you can, you need to take as much time as you can, and you need to make the best decisions you can… We’re in a situation where things are evolving every day. You’re monitoring the evolution of the virus and the searches for answers on the virus. You’re monitoring travel restrictions and how we can move clubs around, if we can move clubs around. And we’re monitoring local restrictions with respect to spectators and fans. You’ve got to stay on top of everything and understand things, and they become a very relevant context for the ultimate decisions you make.
While the league is sticking with their expected start date of on or around January 1st, there are still several hurdles to beginning play and they may still be in place by that point in time. The league undoubtedly hoped and believed that the Coronavirus would have subsided somewhat by this point, but the numbers in North America are still not close to ideal. This all but rules out fans in the stands from the get-go, a tough pill to swallow for a league that relies on gate revenue, and even makes travel a struggle. The U.S.-Canada border is the largest travel issue of all, with no resolution to that closure in sight. The league can’t possibly support all 31 teams playing in just two bubbles again, but there is some thought that there could be several hubs, including one that contains all seven Canadian clubs. However, is even this format feasible for a full season or will the NHL have to shorten another year?
There are many questions the league still has to answer and Daly believes that they have the full support of the owners in figuring out some resolution to make sure the 2020-21 season happens and is as close to normal as possible. Of course, this is not a binary decision for the league though, as Daly acknowledges:
We have to work with the Players’ Association over what a return to play plan looks like for next year. And anything considered, talked about, discussed in the context of that ultimately has to be signed off on by both sides. Everybody has an interest in us having a season and awarding a Cup next year. And everybody will be pulling in the same direction in terms of getting there… The players’ perspective and the Players’ Association’s perspective and their input on whatever plan we ultimately come up with is critical to our ability to be successful.
With so many moving parts, questions without clear answers, and an ever-changing pandemic landscape, there is still nothing firm as to what next season could look like. Planning a full professional sports season right now is a daunting task – the MLB and NFL have had their fair share of issues even without fans in most cases and limited travel – so the NHL will take their time, consult their partners and stakeholders, and try to come up with some format that works. Daly believes they will find a solution, but admits that they are still far from that point:
I’m being honest when I say that there is no likely scenario. In other words, I couldn’t pick one. I could identify 10 to 12 scenarios for you right now and I wouldn’t be able to pick a likely scenario. While we have to make these decisions in a matter of weeks, I couldn’t tell you that we’re leaning any one over any other. It really is going to be a product of a whole bunch of considerations that have yet to materialize.