The National Hockey League began the Stanley Cup Final in the time of the coronavirus Saturday night with a Dallas 4-1 win over Tampa Bay in the best-of-of-seven series at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. But when and if there might be a 2020-21 regular season is still a matter of conjecture.
The two teams arrived at this juncture after weeks playing sans fans in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles with all NHL team personnel tested every day for the coronavirus and no positive results from those 31,000 tests, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
That’s an immeasurable achievement no matter whether it’s the Lightning or the Stars at the end who lift the Cup.
“This is another testament to the commitment of our players and staffs,” Bettman said.
What comes next, though, is the big question, and one that Bettman couldn’t answer despite repeated queries during his annual pre-final round media conference–confined this year to video.
Bettman and deputy Bill Daley wouldn’t commit to when the next season might begin, or say if there would even be a season. Only a few months ago, Bettman had said a full 82-game season would begin in December. Not now as COVID-19 continues to linger and free passage across the border between the U.S. and Canada is restricted. Visitors to Canada must quarantine for 14 days.
“Anything that anybody reads or writes or commentates about next season is purely speculation,” Bettman said. “Obviously we’ve started thinking about what the options are. Dec. 1 has always been a notional date. I will not be surprised if it doesn’t slip until later in December or January.”
Or doesn’t happen at all. With experts expecting another surge in the disease, which has already killed 200,000 in the U.S., but 9,257 in Canada, all plans have been put on hold.
“There’s no point in making any definitive plans because there’s too much we don’t know,” Bettman said. “Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the U.S. is going to be open by a date certain; nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be; nobody can tell us whether our arenas are going to be socially distanced or fully occupied.
“And we’re going to have to do the same thing we did about return to play: explore all the options and be agile and flexible to implement when the appropriate time comes.”
To be certain, it’s going to be tough for the NHL to continue playing without arena revenue generated by fans. Like the National Basketball Association, and to hockey’s good fortune, when the season came to a halt March 12, 85% of the games had been played with a commensurate collection of arena revenue from tickets, concessions, advertising and merchandise sales.
Bettman maintained the NHL is stable when asked about the financial state of the league after speaking of next year’s uncertainty.
“The only good news in this context is that the ownership of the 31, and soon to be 32, NHL franchises has never been stronger and healthier,” he said. “While nobody has any revenue coming in right now and owners are obviously writing checks to cover overhead and expenses, our franchises will get through this.
“Yes, there will be a revenue hit. It’s no secret that attendance affects at least 50% of our revenues. We know there’s going to be a shortfall depending on how many fans can attend, and that’s not in our control. We know it will be less. We know it will have an impact, but I’m comfortable our franchises will be able to weather this.”
Another casualty could be the annual Winter Classic, slated to be played in Minneapolis this coming Jan. 1 with the Minnesota Wild hosting the St. Louis Blues at Target Field.
As of now, Bettman said, the event has yet to be canceled, but it certainly is in danger considering the precarious nature of playing the season.
“I don’t know the answer to that as we sit here today,” Bettman said. “If it were to be [canceled] we would make appropriate arrangements to make it up to the great fans of Minnesota.”
A delay in expanding the new Seattle franchise into the NHL as planned in time for the 2021-22 season
“No,” Bettman said.
Any worries about where the New York Islanders will play if there is a 2020-21 season?
“Something will get worked out with the [Nassau] Coliseum, because somebody is going to manage it for the county,” he said. “That’s just a logistical issue.”
“I still anticipate playing a full 82-game season and a full playoffs,” he added. “My preference would be to stay out of summer as much as possible. It’s always been a goal to be done by the end of June. That’s what our fans want. We understand the issue. We don’t have enough information to make any decisions. Our goal is to get back to the greatest sense of normalcy as soon as possible.”