The National Hockey League needs to cancel its remaining regular-season games.
It brings me no pleasure to put this out there. We all want to see this season to its equitable completion; if there is a postseason, to have the previous five-and-a-half months boiled down to the points percentage variance between teams, with differing numbers of games played, would be a shame. Playing those postponed regular-season games would mean money in the depleted coffers of NHL teams. Regular-season games would also mean a much-needed cash insurgence for local business around arenas, presuming they’re in operation as the coronavirus pandemic hopefully wanes.
But this is a fantasy.
Let’s start with the obvious, which is that the NHL is at the mercy of local municipalities when it comes to restrictions on travel, mass gatherings and business operations. It’s entirely possible that one team’s state will be closer to an “all clear” than another’s. It’s entirely possible that the medical experts from one city will be more stringent than another’s.
But let’s say enough of those hurdles are cleared to the point that a North American pro sports league can restart its season: Rescheduling games is going to be a logistical nightmare, as the NBA and every other postponed arena event scramble to make up dates.
The difference between rescheduling for 16 (or 20) buildings and doing so for all 31 arenas is considerable, as is the difference between rescheduling regular-season games — involving a lot of travel — and rescheduling a playoff series — which requires far less of it or none at all, depending on what playoff model the NHL chooses.
Regular-season games could be played with or without fans, but let’s go with the idea that spectators will be in the building — because why go through the trouble of playing them otherwise? Given the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, how many fans are buying tickets to a regular-season game? Or spending money at a game? How many are going to attend said game, if they already have tickets?
The Detroit Red Wings are 52 points out of a playoff spot and have four home games left. Every one of them is going to be a portrait of social distancing, as each fan gets his or her own section.
All of these issues are pressing, but none is more pressing than the fact that the NHL — and every other professional sport looking to make up postponed games — is going to start running out of runway to relaunch this summer. Remember, we also need to squeeze in the NHL draft and awards — both already postponed — as well as free agency between the end of the Stanley Cup Final and the start of the next preseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno told ESPN this week that when it comes to completing a normal season, “The reality of it is probably pretty slim, with the time crunch that we’re putting ourselves into as this thing continues to go.”
The CDC recommended eight weeks of distancing at the time the NHL paused its season on March 12. The NHL’s chief medical officer said Wednesday that making any firm decisions now is folly. “While it’s rapidly accelerating, the risk in the general population is probably increasing rather than decreasing, so until we see where the peak is going to be and how high that peak is going to be, it’s very difficult to give a definitive timeline,” Dr. Willem Meeuwisse said.
Now, you might be asking: Why not wait to cancel the games? What if things turn around?
I appreciate that sentiment because this is a high-stakes proposition. A conservative estimate, from a source on the players’ side, indicated that upward of $100 million is on the line if the NHL doesn’t finish the regular season. I don’t believe the league or its teams have insurance that covers canceled games. The teams, meanwhile, all have different agreements with vendors and sponsors that might or might not be covered by a “force majeure” provision. Any revenue shortfalls are going to end up costing the players in escrow next season and beyond, which is why a group of “elite” NHLers were theorizing a full season that would have ended in September and a 2020-21 season that would start in November, according to reports.
September is really pushing it, as players are already wary of playing into the summer. “I don’t know if it makes a ton of sense for us to play into August. I think that’s pretty dangerous coming into another season,” Foligno told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan.
But there are financial implications right now, as the NHL leaves these games postponed rather than canceled.
Let’s start with the part-time game-night staffers. Although many NHL teams have stepped up to immediately compensate them for lost wages due to postponed games, other teams — most prominently the Buffalo Sabres and the Boston Bruins, both of whom laid off swaths of their salaried staff in the days following the NHL’s pause — refuse to compensate these workers until the games are canceled. As the Bruins put it, “The Jacobs Family has established a $1.5 million fund for the Boston Bruins and TD Garden part-time gameday associates who will be financially burdened if the six remaining regular season Bruins games are not played.”
They’re burdened now, B’s.
Then there are the fans. If you are holding tickets to an NHL game that’s in limbo — and for a family of four, we’re talking grocery money for a few weeks — the teams and third-party ticket sellers are not starting the refund process until the games are actually canceled.
Cancel them already. Sorry, but I’m more interested in fans getting their money back than in the interest teams are generating off of it.
The NHL and the American Hockey League are the last two prominent hockey leagues on the planet that haven’t canceled their seasons, now that the KHL is kaput. I’m hearing that a decision on the AHL’s season is going to be made independent of what its parent league does, which means the NHL could be the last league standing in a few months.
And I do believe it will stand. The NHL is going to find some way to hand out the Stanley Cup in 2020 after a playoff tournament. But at this point, the league should just say the quiet part — already being whispered among the NHL’s players and general managers — out loud, which is that you don’t need a completed regular season to have a postseason.
We’ve already discussed postseason models that involve expanding the playoff field. Those aforementioned elite players want it expanded to upward of 24 out of 31 teams. I think a more realistic number is 20 teams, with 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 play-in games or series (a format that will still bum out some teams near the bubble, but fewer of them).
As Foligno told us this week, “I could see it being some kind of play-in, then having the playoffs. Maybe it’s shorter rounds to get the first rounds out of the way. I still think you need to have a seven-game Stanley Cup Final series — and the conference championships, too — to make it part of history and fit the mystique of the Stanley Cup.”
But he also cautioned, “I don’t know if it makes a ton of sense for us to play into August. I think that’s pretty dangerous coming into another season. You want to have a great season the following season, and I don’t know if that gives guys enough time to rest and recover. If you think of the amount of games some guys would play, you’re adding on another 20 games, plus a full season, then playoffs again. That’s dangerous for some players, especially star players — the guys fans want to see — they’re usually playing deep into the playoffs, so we have to be cognizant of their health and safety.”
The road to the Cup this season is going to be an imperfect journey, littered with caveats and asterisks. We all know this. But it’s a journey that should begin the moment the NHL and its fans are blessed to restart the season. Without sacrificing next season’s timeline and risking the health of the players. Without money owed to employees and fans being held back on a technicality. Without more regular-season games because they’ve been logically, understandably and formally canceled.
From Ottawa earlier this season:
Seen at CTC tonight. pic.twitter.com/YNWkOWqSyl
— Carolyn (@kittiecutie) January 17, 2020
We’ve seen this type of foul before. It tracks back to the Eric Lindros Derby of 1991, when some fans started wearing No. 88 jerseys well before it was clear which team would land the phenom. We saw it again during the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, as many fans — OK, a few Buffalo fans — began prematurely wearing his name on their backs. No matter what the NHL does with its draft lottery, the Ottawa Senators are going to have a decent shot at phenom Alexis Lafrenière, thanks to a couple of lottery picks. But this still seems … presumptuous.
Top three ways NHL players are keeping fit during the pause
1. The partner/spouse press
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 23, 2020
Seeing this video of Ilya Kovalchuk using wife Nikol for squats was a little jarring. He’s on the Capitals now?! Sheesh, the trade deadline feels as if it happened 30 years ago.
But as far as using your loved one as fitness gear … maybe it’s a Russian thing, as injured Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko also revealed:
Vladimir Tarasenko’s shoulder looks good. 💪
🎥 (tarasenko.yana / IG) pic.twitter.com/5JLfQPM3XO
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 24, 2020
We’re simultaneously curious and horrified about what gyms might look like in Russia.
2. The pooch lift
Home gym necessities for Mikko:
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) March 19, 2020
Colorado Avalanche winger Mikko Rantanen toned up by hugging a large canine, whose wagging tail would seem to indicate that this isn’t the pup’s waking nightmare. Although he could use a little work on the dismount, we’ll assume the “good boy/here’s your treat” followed off-camera.
3. The child pushup
(🎥: IG/ anzekopitar) pic.twitter.com/Ak334SfAW5
— NHL (@NHL) March 23, 2020
Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar loaded up a couple of kids and answered the 10-pushup challenge. Extra credit for choosing not to do this on a nice, plush carpet, which is why Kopitar is a professional athlete and we’re face-down on a plush carpet after one rep.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
Cornell women’s hockey coach Doug Derraugh and men’s coach Mike Schafer joined us to talk about being No. 1 in the nation … only to have their seasons end without a chance to play for a national title due to the coronavirus. Plus, we have the latest on the NHL’s season pause, what players are up to and listener mail! Stream, download, subscribe and review here!
Winners and losers of the week
(As mentioned last week, there aren’t always going to be “losers” in this space because of the strange days we’re living in as hockey fans, but there are a couple this week. Let’s get them out of the way.)
Loser: Delaware North
As mentioned earlier, the owners of the Boston Bruins — who, if you’ll recall, had four rounds of playoff revenue that included four Stanley Cup Final home games last postseason — refuse to compensate their game-night workers until the games are canceled, a decision rendered after 30 other NHL teams made theirs. They followed that by putting 68 full-time salaried workers on leave beginning April 1, with one week of salary, and giving an “indefinite salary reduction” to 82 full-time salaried associates. Look, the Bruins are hardly going to be alone in reducing staff and salary in the coming months. But looking at the reaction from Bruins fans, it’s rather clear that there were much, much better ways to handle these matters.
Loser: Mixing COVID-19 and the Canadiens logo
As Daniel Wagner wondered when he saw The Score tweet out a Montreal Canadiens logo with the No. 19 in the middle: “Even without the century-long history of the Canadiens logo, it probably wasn’t the best idea. COVID-19 probably doesn’t need a brand identity.” (The Score later deleted the tweet.)
Meanwhile, we have winners:
Winner: The KHL
Kudos to the Russian league for correcting some previous missteps in its coronavirus reaction — such as shaming two playoff teams that wanted to drop out of the postseason — by canceling the rest of its season. League president and former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alexei Morozov said, “We consider that no one has the right to take on responsibility for people’s lives and health.” The KHL will figure out the championship stuff later.
Winner: Dallas Jims
As we reported yesterday, Dallas Stars president Jim Lites and general manager Jim Nill each took a voluntary 50% pay cut during the NHL’s season pause. “Jim and I are very fortunate. The game’s been great to us. But within our organization, we have a lot of younger people working who live paycheck to paycheck. We hope this is something that can help them down the road,” Nill said. One Stars employee told me, “I can tell you that this gesture goes a long way” for the staff in uncertain times.
The hockey gear company announced this week that it was “producing medical shields that could be delivered to hospitals as soon as next week.” By Wednesday morning, Bauer had orders at its Quebec facility for more than 100,000 units across Canada, according to Bauer CEO Ed Kinnaly.
Agréable surprise des derniers jours: les joueurs des Canadiens qui se sont joints à TikTok 😂
A pleasant surprise of staying home: Seeing the Habs jump on TikTok
🎥 bgally.11 pic.twitter.com/MTPIFaOdv2
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) March 25, 2020
We have a feeling that stir-crazy NHL players are going to take to the video streaming platform like skates to ice. But it’s going to be hard to top Canadiens star Brendan Gallagher‘s debut, in which he did a classic bit from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
A high-school senior has invented the “first ever hockey stick taping machine.”
Why the hockey played in a summer Stanley Cup tournament could be the best we’ve ever seen.
Some foreign-born hockey players are stuck in South Carolina due to travel restrictions.
Nice work by the Canucks to give “stick taps to healthcare workers.”
An NWHL player is on a different kind of mission right now: serving as a captain in the Minnesota National Guard and organizing a COVID-19 response.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Sheng Peng of Fear the Fin takes a look at how the coronavirus is impacting San Jose’s hockey culture, including news that the Sharks have not only decided to “pay SAP Center employees for events missed in March, but quietly, they’ve also paid their practice facility employees.”
In case you missed this, from your friends at ESPN
I’m really proud of this season-long project in which I asked 25 NHL players (with an assist from Emily Kaplan) who their first linemates were. It was like opening up a bunch of packs of old hockey cards.