By mid-February, the National Hockey League had reached a crisis point in its already abbreviated 56-game season. Five teams were down because of the coronavirus, and Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly knew there had to be a severe tightening of protocols governing the players or the season would be in jeopardy.
This all came just short of a year after the league had to shut down for what turned out to be four months, joining Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. The dubious anniversary of that date is Friday.
“There was no doubt we had a very difficult couple of weeks with the amount of positive tests coming back,” Daly said during Thursday’s joint media conference call with Bettman. “What we’ve confirmed through this process is that we’re dealing with a very contagious virus, easily transmissible if people aren’t taking appropriate precautions.”
In response, the league and NHL Players Association agreed to a number of protocol revisions, which have altered the course of the season. But the most draconian have been the most effective, as players, coaches and staff were told to create individual bubbles at home. They have been ordered to “stay at home,” limiting them to arenas, practice facilities and their homes.
“We had protocols that we issued prior to the start of the season that basically required a quarantine when you’re on the road, but didn’t have the same strict restrictions when players are in the home market,” Daly said. “Now, [effective Feb. 11], they couldn’t run errands, they couldn’t pick up kids from school, no social interactions.”
It seems to have worked because no teams have been barred by COVID from practicing or playing since then, putting the season back on track. And Bettman said positive tests among player and on-ice coaches, trainers and managers has plummeted.
On Feb. 12, he noted, there were 59 players on the NHL COVID restricted list, but as of Wednesday there were four.
“It’s not necessarily a handful of positives,” Daly added. “It’s when you’re in a situation where there’s been an outbreak on a particular team.”
All of the league’s 31 teams currently are playing.
“We have had to live this day-to-day,” Bettman said. “We’ve had to react to things on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s positive tests, whether it’s contact tracing, whether it’s postponing games and then rescheduling them.”
There’s also the specter of vaccinations, and Daly said he believes some players have already taken them while greater compliance will be negotiated with the union.
“At some point we’ll get into a position where I would think and I would hope that there’s widespread vaccination,” Daly said.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t troubled times ahead and decisions that have to be made on the fly. When the NHL returned to play last July, it was in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. In the latter, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in six games over the Dallas Stars by the end of September.
Because of restrictions still in place at the U.S.-Canadian border, Bettman couldn’t preclude the use of a bubble again—this time in the U.S.—for later rounds of the playoffs, if teams are still not able to travel unencumbered back and forth between the countries.
This season, the NHL split into four divisions by necessity with the seven Canadian teams playing only against each other in the Scotia North. People traveling into certain parts of Canada still must quarantine for 14 days before integrating with the community, thus precluding a traditional back-and-forth, seven-game playoff series.
None of those Canadian teams are among the eight that have had to halt play this season because of an outbreak.
“We’ll deal with whatever the situation is from a pandemic standpoint and whatever government regulations are,” Bettman said. “I suppose it is conceivable to quasi-bubble if we’re going to play the conference finals and there’s a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Final. But again, we’ll do whatever we need to do that’s safe from a medical standpoint.
“So, we don’t have bubble plans right now. But if we do, we’d develop them in a heartbeat as we did over the summer.”
As far as returning in the fall to the pattern of a normal season, running from October to June, Bettman said right now that’s still the plan. The New York Islanders and expansion Seattle Kraken are opening new buildings next season with the hope of having a full contingent of fans in the stands. That’s still to be determined.
Right now, 10 teams are playing in front of very limited crowds. The season opened in January with fans attending games at about 10-20% in only three buildings.
“We’re hopeful, we’re planning, we’re optimistic, and we believe that we should be able to start next season on time,” Bettman said.
This season hasn’t been all about putting out COVID brush fires. Bettman said the teams have been able to retain about $100 million in advertising revenue by doing things like selling naming rights to each division, developing virtual on-ice signage, and putting a sponsorship decal on player helmets.
“I think it’s more likely than not we’ll continue to see those,” Bettman said about the helmet ads. “It doesn’t mean we’re on a slippery slope. These are tough economic times, and we have to utilize the avenues we’re presented.”
The league also just consummated a new, 10-year television deal with Disney. Good things can even happen during tough times.
“It’s hard to believe we’ve all been at this for a year, and we’re still not done,” Bettman said. “Yes, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but also this isn’t a time to let our guard down or reduce our vigilance. In some respects, the year has gone in the blink of an eye. And in other respects it has seems like forever.”