If early returns are any indication, this abbreviated NHL season before the Kraken makes its debut is going to be a risky ordeal indeed.
Already, the Dallas Stars have had their season debut postponed by six players and two staffers testing positive for COVID-19. Other teams canceling practices this past weekend due to concerns about possible COVID exposures included the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Vancouver Canucks aborted a Sunday workout after what they later called a “false positive’’ test by a player.
And the already-shortened 56-game schedule doesn’t even start until Wednesday.
Not surprisingly, a season-opening conference call Monday between media members and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was dominated by pandemic talk. The NHL staged its playoffs last fall in Edmonton and Toronto bubble zones without a single player testing positive for COVID-19.
But just like the NBA – which the past week has canceled a slew of games following team outbreaks – the NHL is facing questions about its decision to fly teams around to play an indoor sport in local arenas at a time COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide are reaching all-time highs.
“We believe that we’ve embarked on the right journey,’’ Bettman said. “But having said that, we believe as well that, with some of the spiking that’s going on in some of the places in North America, there is going to be a greater element of risk than we thought we would ultimately have once we got into the bubble over the summer.’’
Bettman said he remains confident the league has the flexibility to overcome further outbreaks and game postponements and finish the Stanley Cup Final by early July in order to resume a traditional schedule next season. He said all reports from Kraken owner David Bonderman and CEO Tod Leiweke are that the team and its facilities will be ready for an October launch.
It wasn’t entirely clear whether Bettman was aware of a construction accident Saturday evening in which debris from an unrelated project fell on a portion of the Kraken’s planned training facility at Northgate Mall. The team says it is working to assess the damage and remains confident in its completion timeline.
As for the coming season, the NHL — unlike the NBA — will be trying to play games in two countries that had previously taken very different governmental approaches to the pandemic. Only last week did the NHL receive permission from provincial governments in British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba to allow teams to play home games there (Alberta had already signed-off), while the league has formed a division comprised of all seven Canadian squads that will play only each other to avoid cross-border travel and that country’s mandatory 14-day quarantine rules.
But the provinces’ decisions have faced some public criticism. The head of Woodbine Entertainment, which owns two horse racing tracks, a casino and off-track betting services in Toronto, questioned the Ontario government allowing the local Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators to play home games while the province remains in a pandemic lockdown.
“I’m not so sure anyone, including us, should be or needs to be playing a sport in the midst of a provincial health lockdown with (daily infection) numbers over 3,000,’’ Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson, whose racing operations shuttered last month, told the Canadian Press. “I just think, ‘Is that the right thing to do?’ As you watch the numbers and watch them climb and not get any better, you start to come to the realization that it’s just the wrong thing to do.’’
In Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens are allowed to play despite a four-week, province-wide nightly curfew that began last Saturday. Manitoba’s chief public health officer on Monday had to fend off criticism the Winnipeg Jets were being allowed to play despite recreational sports remaining banned in that province.
The Canadian element is something no other North American pro league has contended with in-season. Canadian-based teams in MLB, MLS and the NBA all relocated to the U.S. to play non-bubble schedules.
If the NHL can’t control outbreaks, the pressure could grow on governments north of the border to tighten controls. And Canada isn’t even the toughest jurisdiction the NHL is dealing with.
The San Jose Sharks remain without a home amid the COVID-19 ban on contact sports by Santa Clara County. Bettman said the league remains in negotiations there.
For now, the NHL continues to point to stringent player testing and contact tracing protocols as hedges against public safety concerns. Besides the all-Canadian division, the league is limiting U.S. travel with three onetime regionally-based divisions within which teams play only each other.
The league has mandated players stick to arenas and hotels on the road. And that, while at home, they and their immediate families remain within their own “bubbles” by avoiding restaurants, bars and private gatherings.
But there’s a limit to how much policing any league can do to keep players, wives and children from engaging within communities after games in which teams come nose-to-nose with their opponents. This is where some of the biggest concerns arise about team sports and community spread.
Never mind the fans some NHL teams plan to allow into games right away.
The Stanley Cup finalist Stars, sidelined by COVID for now, want roughly 5,000 fans per game to be allowed into their arena. The Florida Panthers want the same, while the Arizona Coyotes hope to have about 3,450 per contest.
The St. Louis Blues announced Monday they’ll allow no more than 300 fans per game to start.
Meanwhile, the Penguins and Blue Jackets — both hit by canceled practices due to COVID concerns — are expected to try to play in front of home fans in coming weeks. Ticket sales remain huge for the NHL, which draws roughly 50% of revenues from in-person attendance.
The league last week announced it has sold division naming rights to sponsors to offset pandemic losses projected to exceed $1 billion. That comes after it rolled out the use of company ads on helmets for the first time.
But Bettman denied that continuing to play during a spiking pandemic is about recouping as much money as possible.
“It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play,” he said. “We’re going to lose more money at the club level and the league level by playing than by not playing. But the owners unanimously are OK with that because they know how important it is to our fans and our game.”
But whether it’s worth the underlying risk is a question fraught with far more unknowns than anything those owners could possibly answer just yet.