Opinion

It's not quite juggling chainsaws while walking a tightrope above the Grand Canyon, but the National Hockey League is about to embark on a risky venture when the puck drops Wednesday on a new season.

Some might go as far as to suggest it's downright reckless.

A COVID-19 outbreak has already delayed the 2021 debut of the Dallas Stars, while early scares in Columbus, Pittsburgh and Vancouver have served up a reminder the virus remains in charge and isn't going away anytime soon — while also giving critics plenty of ammunition to argue none of this is necessary right now.

All of which raises the question of why you'd flirt with potential disaster and push forward during the worst of the global pandemic — especially given the eye-opening claim NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made on Monday afternoon.

Commissioner Gary Bettman says the NHL and its teams are going to lose a whole lot of money this year. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images files)

Commissioner Gary Bettman says the NHL and its teams are going to lose a whole lot of money this year. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images files)

"It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play," Bettman said during a Zoom call with media. "We are going to lose more money at the club level and the league level by playing than by not playing. The magnitude of the loss starts with a 'B.' We're out of the 'M' range and into the 'B."'

I'm no business expert, but on the surface this doesn't exactly seem like a sound strategy. I certainly don't make a habit of routinely just tossing cash away, or setting it on fire, but maybe that's just me.

And yet here we are, on the eve of a campaign that promises to be like no other. Newly realigned divisions, including all seven Canadian clubs playing exclusively north of the border. Just 56 games, all against the same handful of opponents. And no fans in the stands for the vast majority of clubs, who will continue to bleed money for the foreseeable future.

All of it, seemingly hanging by a thread that could snap any day and send everyone involve plummeting into the great unknown. Hey Gary — you sure you don't want to re-consider before you hit the point of no return?

"We're coming back to play this season because we think it's important for the game. Because our fans and our players want us to. And it may give people, particularly those who are in isolation or where there are curfews, a sense of normalcy and something to do," said Bettman.

The Dallas Stars were forced to cancel their first games after a reported six players and two staff tested positive for COVID. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images files)

The Dallas Stars were forced to cancel their first games after a reported six players and two staff tested positive for COVID. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images files)

There's no doubt the players want it, their careers short enough as is and the fact they'll still earn 72 per cent of their salaries for the season, the result of lengthy negotiations with the NHL that resulted in a deal. I'm not so sure all fans are quite as excited, given the amount of feedback I get from folks who feel the league is being given special treatment by government and health officials while they continue to put their lives on pause. Which they are, of course.

The big reason is the NHL's claim of being able to control their own environment with strict protocols, something they pulled off successfully last summer during the Stanley Cup playoffs in hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. But this is an entirely different animal. There's no bubble, which Bettman said was a non-starter for players, and COVID-19 numbers are much worse now than they were then. Which is why Bettman sounded a bit like a stern parent, lecturing his kids, during Monday's call.

"The protocols are not a suggestion or a recommendation. They need to be done in order for us to address and get through the pandemic. And we will vigorously enforce them," he said.

Translation: We're damn lucky to be given a ton of rope here. You better not screw it up.

I find it interesting the NHL plans to name all players who come down with COVID-19 once the season begins — a big change from last summer when such information was top secret. They will also be transparent about punishing individuals and/or teams found to be violating the terms. Could Dallas, with six players and two staff members currently infected, end up being the proverbial guinea pig?

Last season's playoffs were in the bubbles of Edmonton and Toronto, but this season won't offer teams the same protection. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

Last season's playoffs were in the bubbles of Edmonton and Toronto, but this season won't offer teams the same protection. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

"We're still trying to get our arms around exactly how the spread occurred. it has turned out to be kind of a classic outbreak. There may be a variety of factors associated with that," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

One thing I was happy to hear Monday is the NHL has no plans to try to secure their own vaccine supply anytime soon, and certainly not before the majority of the public gets a shot in the arm. Former broadcaster John Shannon reported last month the league was exploring such a move for this season.

Dallas (once they begin play in a week from now), Florida and Arizona will start the year with limited number of fans, while Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay may soon follow suit. The majority of teams will not, which takes away an estimated 50 per cent of all hockey-related revenues.

"What's aspirational is we get through the season, we have on the ice a terrific season, great playoffs, we present the Stanley Cup and the world is back to normal for the 2021-22 season. Anything beyond that, great," said Bettman. "But we're planning as if we're not going to be having fans overwhelmingly in most of our buildings."

Lest anyone think we should feel sorry for NHL team owners, I'll remind you they are among the wealthiest folks in the world and in a much better position to weather the storm than your average business owner. This short-term pain is being equally shared by the league and its players as part of their current collective bargaining agreement. They'll all continue to make a good living, and there's no question deciding to play on this season is with the idea of a long-term gain in mind.

The Winnipeg Jets will play without fans in the arena, but some U.S. teams will allow limited numbers of spectators. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Winnipeg Jets will play without fans in the arena, but some U.S. teams will allow limited numbers of spectators. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The real reason they're going ahead is the fact disappearing from the sporting landscape for a year, especially in the United States, would likely cause even more big picture damage then whatever hits are coming their way this year. And make no mistake: There will be some, including postponed or even cancelled games.

"We have to be ready to adjust and adapt to anything that may happen. We're going to have to make judgments in real time. We try to have the maximum amount of information available with the best advice from the experts," said Bettman.

Perhaps recognizing the optics are less than ideal, Monday's availability ended with a thank you, of sorts, to "extraordinarily professional" Manitoba health officials, and those in four other Canadian provinces, for ultimately signing off on the new season.

"I give them a lot of credit. They took a lot of time and a lot of effort in reviewing those protocols, coming back to us with suggestions," said Daly, who led intensive talks from the league level. "I think at the end of the day we're all comfortable that we have in place a series of protocols that will make the game safe, not only for NHL participants but for the communities in which we play."

But like all of the best-laid plans, outlined in a 213-page league document, whether they ultimately can keep COVID-19 at bay is still up in the air. And so as a six-month long tightrope walk begins in 31 different arenas this week, the NHL might be wise to keep a parachute handy and avoid looking down.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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