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While we wait for the “when” of hockey, consider the “if”

Earlier this week, the National Hockey League crossed the one-month mark since they pulled out of the business of, well, playing hockey games, suspending operations due to the spread of COVID-19.

In a way, it feels like it’s been both longer, and shorter. On one hand, losing the league, along with other hockey leagues and other professional and amateur sports, is a loss of a hobby, a distraction or even a livelihood for a lot of us, and the suddenness of it has made the time feel like an eternity. At the same time, the fact that society has slowed down with it has warped our sense of what days and weeks even are, so you could’ve probably told me it’s only been a week and I’d believe you.

For reference, we’re in Day 33; the gap between Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year and opening night was 110 days; so we’re about a third of the way through an offseason. If the last game on the schedule was Game 7, we’ve passed the draft, and we’re well into free agency. We’re starting to think about Rookie Development Camps. So to say some time has come off the books would be underselling it, really.

The big question is – when do we start getting that time back?

It depends on who you ask, or under what circumstances. Commissioner Gary Bettman was on Fox Business Network earlier today, and said that the NHL will “Probably be playing into the summer, which is something that we can certainly do“. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of NIAID and most presently known for his place on the White House’s COVID-19 Task Force, suggests that a swift return could be possible, but only in a centralized spot, with no fans, and rigorous testing. There are even places taking bets on the return of the leagues, and the oddsmakers currently lean towards no NHL games being played before August 1st as the most likely outcome.

It’s an extremely complicated scenario, with so many factors at play, both inside and out. Which cities would have the hospitality and broadcasting capacity for the teams and media outlets? (Travelling beat reporters may not be as necessary, but there isn’t a point in going no-fans without a broadcast). Will the people who would have to be involved be okay with harshening a schedule that’s already rough on personal and family life, essentially disconnecting from not just their surroundings but their loved ones for months?

Would teams be willing to take on the cost of operating these games without gate revenue? Do broadcasters have an interest in doing them if advertising revenue is likely to drop at a time like this, particularly with the challenges and uncertain market potential of a less polished product?

Not to mention, while it sounds simple enough to have the top leagues in each sport resume, the inter-connectivity of the various levels might prove to be difficult. Leagues below the NHL have no financial incentive to try to rush back onto the ice – every other level relies much more on gates, merchandise, and, frankly, already usually losing a share of the money. I would be floored if any hockey league of significance besides the NHL resumes their season.

Which begs the question – how do you re-align them onto the same timeline when everybody comes back without disrupting the pipeline? What happens with players on NHL contracts who have been assigned to the AHL? What happens with the draft, and with player rights? The draft is traditionally about two weeks after the playoffs, with some first-round positions being based off playoff performance. If leagues call off their 19/20’s and decide to start 20/21 on time, you’re stuck making personnel decisions on players right at the draft (for example: sending prospects back to major junior). Or, you’re developing a web of loopholes and exemptions that might be tough to untangle, or in an even worse case, you delay the resumption of every level of hockey that cancelled instead of resumed, so they can fall back onto the same calendar of the NHL – which these teams likely can’t afford either.

The layers to this are significant and chained linked. All of the above, including the items that most people would not bother to consider at the baseline, creates just a tip of the iceberg in what is going to be a logistical, financial, and social headache that will ripple to tiers of these sports that flow their talent upward, even if the top leagues can claim no direct responsibility. That’s before we even consider the uncertainty of the world that will surround these stadiums. If you follow the logic that countries should be mass-tested, including the asymptomatic, before we get back to normal in the day-to-day world, how long will it be until it’s fair to be giving large amounts of frequent testing to sports entertainment workers – workers who may make our leisure time a little better but (and I’m including myself here) aren’t as essential to societal flow as many others?

Don’t get me wrong – I love this game. I love playing it, I love learning about it, I love watching it, I love working within it. The break we’re facing right now is essentially ripping off the bandaid that was holding together my very purpose in life since kindergarten. But while we search for updates and dream of a return to normalcy, both on the ice and in the real world, it’s important to remember that there are still a lot of questions to be asked, let alone answered and that this might be a little more complicated than just “throw a bunch of NHLers in a hotel and get at it”. While it would be an incredible outcome to get back on the ice, I believe we’re in a rare case where it’s not “when”, but “if”.

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