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An NHL return to play is stuck between a rock and a hard place

The NHL and NHLPA are figuring out how to return to play. However there are a number of factors that stand in their way. Can they do it?

Vegas Golden Knights by Michael Miller is licensed under CC BY SA-4.0

An NHL return to play is stuck between a rock and a hard place

Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

When sports came back into the fold this past summer, there was a ton of unknown. Different leagues were able to return to various levels of success. The National Hockey League had what I thought was the best plan of anyone, and they executed it perfectly.

They split the eastern and western conferences, the former in Toronto and the latter in Edmonton. After players finished an abbreviated quarantine, they then started to practice. However they didn’t dust themselves off and dive right in. Ramping up from 4-5 men on the ice at once, the league built in safety measures that gradually brought practices to full strength.

But that was June. The NHL was scheduled to begin the new season on January 1st.

That looks like a pipe dream at this point.

With Coronavirus still ravaging, and cases continuing to rise, the complexity of bringing back a sport that is played inside, in the cold, with fans(?), is higher than it has ever been.

Now that we’re looking across the horizon at the dawn of a new season, two things could keep that sun from rising.

The first is money.

Why is that? Well, that answer is complicated, too. The NHL and NHLPA are in negotiations to figure out how to get things going. Before the bubble, there was an agreement made to maintain a flat salary cap over the next two to four years, as society navigates what a sense of normalcy will be. That was all well and good in the times of the summer bubble.

I will be straight up and say I have not done the number crunching on this, so I’m not trying to pass the next bit off as fact. However I do feel as though my assumptions are, or at least are close to, correct.

Hockey, of the “four major” US sports, likely relies most on ticket sales to generate revenue. The NHL doesn’t quite have the brand platform of the NFL or the Regional Sports Network money like MLB. Getting butts in seats is hugely important to the success of these teams. Particularly in places like Nashville or Arizona, where the sport doesn’t have deep roots like it does in places like Detroit, Boston, or any of the Canadian cities.

The lack of fans becomes a massive hit to each organization, which then impacts player wallets. As it is, making a double-digit million dollar salary is a rarity in the NHL. So while negotiating with the league to get back on the ice come January, the NHLPA needs to hold its ground and make sure they’re getting an acceptable cut.

Both sides need to do everything they can to avoid an MLB-esque negotiation. Nobody needs that sort of ugly to rear its head again.

The second is COVID…duh

While the US states are attacking the pandemic in their own ways, Canadian provinces have issued a variety of strict measures. You may be thinking, we already saw a bubble with no fans, they can do that again, right? Wrong. Well, not to the same success at least.

Manitoba and Alberta have tightened restrictions enough that the teams within their provinces are unable to even begin practice. Based on the 3-week preseason the NHL put in place before kicking off the bubble, they would need to start hitting the ice by December 11th. But with COVID cases on the rise, and the temperature dropping, that looks like an impossibility.

The NFL is experiencing this to a smaller degree. California’s Santa Clara county has issued a ban on sports. San Francisco lives within that county, and now the 49ers are relocating to Arizona for their December home games.

I don’t know if this is a possibility for teams like Edmonton, Calgary, or Winnipeg, but they would need to figure it out fast if they wanted to get something into place.

Further complexity of COVID

While the Toronto Blue Jays were able to play in Buffalo and the Raptors plan to begin the new season in Tampa, the NHL faces a much larger issue. Seven NHL teams reside in Canada, and they are spread across five provinces, all of which are in charge of their own regulations (much like American states). And, frankly, Canada has taken this pandemic much more seriously than us.

That is a pretty big deal. Canada rejected the NBA and MLB requests to have their leagues’ one team play at home and travel to and from the US. Now we’re rolling into winter and we expect that to be different? It won’t be. So the NHL needs to figure out how to throw out any plans of playing at home arenas, and look at a bubble again. The clock is ticking.

Otherwise? They may not be able to return to play until the 2021/2022 season.

Kevin is an actor, director, playwright, and musician who works in tech. He is die hard New England sports and an avid Tottenham supporter. His qualifications include scoring 1 point in his elementary school basketball career, 4 years of mixed little league results, and breaking his arm with a skip-it days before pre-season workouts started for Freshman football.

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