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I'll admit to being skeptical that this was really going to work. With positive test numbers still climbing throughout much of North America, the idea of bringing the National Hockey League back in the middle of a global pandemic had potential disaster written all over it.
I certainly wasn't alone in fearing the worst. "It's only a matter of time before there's a huge outbreak!" many predicted. "The hockey is going to be terrible!" others declared. "Nobody is going to watch, or care!" some critics huffed and puffed.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
The Stanley Cup playoffs have been a smashing success on virtually every level, now into the second (which is actually the third) round of play in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. First and foremost, there has yet to be a single positive COVID-19 infection among players or staff, with more than 24,000 negative tests now completed over four weeks. That shows what careful attention to detail and following a strict set of rules can do when it comes to combating a deadly virus.
If only we could put our entire world in a similar bubble. Sigh.
As for the action on the ice, how can you not be impressed? It didn't take long for the intensity to get dialed up and players to get worked into a proper post-season lather. Some, more than others. (See Tkachuk, Matthew). The players seem quicker than ever, thanks at least in part to well-rested legs courtesy of a four-month shutdown. There's never been more parity, especially with the absence of any travel, raucous crowds in the rink or any true home-ice advantage.
The broadcasts have been compelling, with more camera angles than ever along with other visual and audio bells and whistles to cover for the lack of fans. While viewership numbers reportedly aren't at their usual spring playoff numbers, that's not a shock considering games have been played at all hours of the day, including weekdays, in the middle of summer.
There's been plenty of buzz about the most unusual playoffs of our lifetime, and the NHL couldn’t have scripted this any better. The league and its players deserve credit for putting together a detailed plan that has been executed to near perfection.
Which brings us to the next part of this story. Get used to this format, folks. It's likely not going anywhere any time soon.
Hard as it may be to believe, the 2020-21 season is right around the corner, even if the conclusion of the 2019-20 campaign is still a few weeks away. The Cup is expected to be handed out at the end of September, which will trigger the most frenetic off-season in history.
The draft in early October. Free agent frenzy, both of the unrestricted and restricted variety including arbitration hearings. Then a few weeks for everyone to gather their breath before training camps likely get underway in mid-November, with a 82-game schedule expected to commence in early December.
There is no chance games are being held in front of fans as early as then, even if I'd love nothing more than to be wrong.
Let's face it, until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, this is likely going to be the "new normal" for pro sports leagues. Cutting down on travel, as the NHL has done by having two hubs, is a key piece of health and safety. Otherwise you have the mess of Major League Baseball, where several teams have been hit with outbreaks as they travel from city to city.
There are rumblings the NHL is already looking at a similar format for the start of next season, perhaps with teams bouncing around between four markets, likely one in each division. That was initially the plan for the playoffs before it was decided to cut down to just two.
That's going to be a big ask of teams. We've already seen evidence of bubble fatigue, including Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask opting out after a few games to return to his family, while others like Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness have talked about the mental toll involved. There's no way players will accept being away from loved ones for an entire season, nor should they, but perhaps a modified format, where teams get short breaks to return to their home base in between hubs, could be the way to go.
"I don't think our current format for bubbles would work for the regular season, particularly because our objective is to play a full season and I'm not sure how we do that in the format we're currently utilizing. I don't think it's going to look like what we're currently doing, but could it be a variation of what we're currently doing," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said this week in an interview on the league's website.
There's no reason to think the NHL and NHLPA can't find some common ground just as they did in this return-to-play protocol, which included an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. Once again, there's too much at stake for everyone not to, including the need to satisfy existing broadcasts agreements to keep the salary cap as high as possible. No games = no revenue.
Daly said there's no rush to decide on exactly what next year will look like and that they'll be closely monitoring COVID-19 numbers in early fall, along with how other leagues handle their affairs. One of those is the NFL, which is set to kick off next month.
While some teams, including the Miami Dolphins, are holding out what seems to be foolish hope they can have limited crowds right off the hop, others such as the Minnesota Vikings have already resigned themselves to the fact they're at least starting the season in empty stadiums.
"We would love to be in a position where we could open on Dec. 1 to full buildings in every one of our markets. That may or may not be possible and we don't control that, so you have to adjust to that reality. That adjustment could take a variety of forms. It could be pushing back the start of the season until that might be possible, or it might be opening to partial buildings in either all the markets or a portion of the markets," Daly told NHL.com.
"We recognize there's not a lot of certainty with respect to what this looks like yet, and there may not be for some period of time. We're going to have to remain flexible and we're going to have to make the best decisions we can at the time we have to make them."
Regardless of how it plays out, the NHL already has a blueprint for success. Who could have seen that coming just a few short months ago?
Enjoy the rest of these most unexpected playoffs. I certainly will.
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