NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday afternoon dismissed any notion that the league will not be able to resume its season and award the Stanley Cup at some point in the next several months.
Appearing as a guest in a virtual town hall hosted by the San Jose Sharks for members of its business alliance, Bettman, responding to a question, said ending a season without crowning a champion is, “not something I’m even contemplating.”
“I believe that if the right time comes, and the right circumstances, based on all of the options that we’re considering and our ability to execute them, we’ll get this season done,” Bettman said. “I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution. That means you stop working hard to do all of the things that we’re doing, and I ultimately believe that there will be an opportunity.”
The only years in which the Stanley Cup was not awarded were in 1919, because of the Spanish flu, and 2005, when the league locked out its players and ultimately canceled the season due to an ongoing dispute with the NHLPA over a new collective bargaining agreement.
“States are re-opening, cities are re-opening,” Bettman said. “And if we do the right things, I think we’ll be able to finish the season.”
Responding to the growing deadly coronavirus pandemic, the NHL on March 12 paused its season, a day after the NBA took the same measure, with 189 regular season games left to play.
Multiple reports indicate if the NHL is able to resume, though, it is focusing on going straight to a still-undetermined playoff format instead of finishing the regular season.
Proposals include a tournament featuring the top 12 teams in each conference or maintaining a traditional 16-team format. Both would leave the Sharks, who were 15th in the Western Conference at the time of the pause, out of the playoff picture.
There remains no firm timeline for a restart, although July and August have been looked at as possibilities.
“We would like to bring a conclusion to this season,” Bettman said. “It’s got to be fair, it’s got to have integrity, and if we have to do it over the summer on some modified basis, then we’ll do it on that basis.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in March, just days after the schedule was suspended, that even if the 2019-2020 season does not finish until the end of summer, the league does not want to do anything to jeopardize an 82-game regular season in 2020-2021. A later start to next season could also open the door to allowing fans into games, something that is not possible now in some jurisdictions, such as Santa Clara County.
“Obviously we hope to be playing in front of fans by next season,” Bettman said. “But if we finish in August or September, there’s no magic to starting in October anymore. We can start in November. We can start in December.
“You’re going to be a little flexible with the schedule, because we want to be able to bring the game back, both to conclude this season on some basis and to have a full regular season next year. If that means we need to be more flexible, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Bettman touched on a few other topics in his roughly 20-minute question and answer session.
On whether the current situation will have an effect on Seattle’s entry into the NHL for the 2021-2022 season, or negotiations on a new CBA (the current one expires in Sept. 2022).
“We’ve been in a very constructive dialogue with our players’ association about the current state of things. What the return to play should look like, and I’m hoping those discussions continue to lead us closer to the possibility of an extension, because I think labor peace is important for us and the players’ association. But most importantly I think it’s important, particularly at this point in time, for our business partners and our fans.”
Renovations on Key Arena in Seattle remains on schedule, Bettman said, adding that the still-unnamed franchise is, “firing on all cylinders, and they continue to do all things necessary to get ready to launch on time.” Bettman said the team is oversubscribed “by multiples on suites, club seats and season tickets.”
On whether the NHL is coordinating plans with the NBA, since the two leagues share a number of the same arenas, to share best practices.
“All of the major leagues are talking to each other and our medical people are talking once a week. What I believe will happen is the league’s, our medical people and the (Centers for Disease Control) will come out with a baseline standard that would make sense for us to come back. It’ll have to be modified for each of the needs of the various sports. We’re a little bit different when it comes ultimately to playing with people, because we’re more separated than the other sports, with the boards and glass.
“But we’re all doing our own things, we’re all considering our options and we’re all trying to figure out what makes sense for our sports. But from a medical standpoint, the understandings, the learnings and the practices that we’re all going to need are things that we’re sharing, even if they don’t turn out to be quite identical. But I’m sure the baseline will all be similar, if not the same.”
On whether the NHL can standardize opening protocols, as it relates to cleaning buildings, etc.
“We’re going to have to,” Bettman said. “Every building’s configuration may be a little different, but … we have standardized procedures now in terms of medically what we require in our buildings, how locker rooms and facilities have to be cleaned, particularly in the back of the house. There will be standard protocols that we will insist upon in all of our buildings.”
What if some venues are allowing fans?
“We’re going to have to adapt building by building. But there will be minimum standards that will be required.”
On what the NHL is doing to expand its audience. The league, during the pause, has tried to remain visible with some of its players participating in eSports, Zoom calls with media and becoming more active on social media.
“We’re going to continue to look for ways to connect with our fans, more and better, beyond just the game itself. We know that millennials and Gen-Zs connect with sports a little bit differently than people my age or your age, and we’re going to make sure we stay on top of that.”