Why do it? Not for the money.
Given that most, if not all, revenue streams stopped and what it costs to stage an event of this magnitude in a way that meets NHL standards, returning to play is hardly a financial bonanza.
Not out of defiance or hubris.
Yes, we’re glad we’ve over the years defied skeptics who didn’t think we could pull off one outdoor game in frigid conditions, much less multiple ones in places like Los Angeles and Dallas. But housing, feeding, testing and coordinating the myriad logistics for 24 teams in two cities, day after day, for two and a half months wasn’t a vanity project.
“Then, why bother?” we were asked—and, to be fair, so was just about every other sports league—in the months between when we paused our season on March 12 and resumed it on Aug. 1. “Why bother to try to finish the 2019-20 season and award the Stanley Cup? Why not just move on to next season?”
Not only that, but, “Why put so much effort into resuming ‘games,’ when our world is being rocked by a global pandemic and a social reckoning?”
There are as many answers as names engraved on the Cup. But three rise above the rest and sum up why we have imagined, brainstormed, vetted, investigated and ultimately executed what has turned out to be the most unique, labor-intensive and, hopefully, once-in-a-lifetime Stanley Cup Playoffs ever staged:
First, our fans wanted us to! They told us in no uncertain terms. They had invested six months into watching our games and supporting their teams, and they wanted a resolution. They wanted a champion and repeatedly told us that.
Second, our players wanted to! They, after all, were going to be asked to perform a most remarkable and demanding feat if we resumed play: Come back after more than four months—for most, their longest stretch without skating since they were 3—and dive into games with the highest stakes. What’s more, they’d have to leave their families and commit to living under restrictive conditions for perhaps more than two months.
NHL players decided overwhelmingly to return—and to play a unique play-in round, plus best-of-seven series in all four postseason rounds, so that the 2020 champions could say they ran the same gauntlet that their predecessors had.
Finally, it is precisely because we know our role in people’s lives that made the decision clear.
Contrary to what some might think, almost without exception, the people involved in professional sports are not under the impression that what we do is a matter of life and death—nor even “as important” as matters such as public health, equality, elections, economics, religion, family functions or countless other aspects of life.
But we have no problem saying that sports, in general, and hockey, in particular, are important—as economic engines, emotional outlets, promoters of healthy lifestyles, models for hard work and teamwork, and even temporary escapes from the travails of everyday life. Not only that, spectator sports are unique in their ability to bring people of all backgrounds and walks of life together.
Where else do you see perfect strangers who have almost nothing in common spontaneously hug or high-five one another in joyful celebration—several times each day on dozens of days each year—the way fans do after a dazzling goal or big save?
That is why I hope no other commissioner in NHL history ever has to make the announcement I did on March 12: that we were taking a pause in our season. And why I won’t really breathe a sigh of relief—or get a full night’s sleep—until either the Dallas Stars or Tampa Bay Lightning hoist the Cup.
When I get to perform the greatest honor of my job—I’d argue, the greatest honor in sports—and hand our incomparable trophy to the winning captain, he and his teammates will react exactly as you’d expect from people who have just made lifelong dreams come true. And in living rooms, backyards and maybe even a few other gathering places in the winning city and even throughout the world, countless fans will do the same—socially distanced, of course.
So, why do it? That’s why!
Gary Bettman is commissioner of the NHL, a role he has held for nearly three decades. Over the course of his tenure, Bettman has overseen the league through remarkable revenue growth and expansion, adding eight teams since he took the job in 1993.
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