The Return of the NHL Post-Covid
The 2020 National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup playoffs proved that hockey could be played amidst the adversity of the Covid-19 pandemic, but as the playoffs concluded and the Stanley Cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning commenced its celebrations, fans and teams have started wondering how the NHL would restart and salvage an already disrupted 2020-2021 season.
The 2020 National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup playoffs proved that hockey could be played amidst the adversity of the Covid-19 pandemic, but as the playoffs concluded and the Stanley Cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning commenced its celebrations, fans and teams have started wondering how the NHL would restart and salvage an already disrupted 2020-2021 season. The National Football League (NFL) has been playing for several months, and the National Basketball Association (NBA) is scheduled to start its 72 game 2020-2021 season next Tuesday. However, the National Hockey League (NHL) has yet to release official start dates for the regular season, despite having concluded the 2020 playoffs before the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2019-20 NBA Finals.
Of the four major North American sports leagues, the NHL faces the greatest challenge in organizing a playing season, given there are seven Canadian teams. The US-Canada border is currently closed and will likely remain so for the coming months. One possible solution is to relocate the seven Canadian teams temporarily to U.S. cities, following the format set by the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, who are playing in Tampa Bay for the upcoming season. But employing this model for seven teams is much more difficult, not to mention that it would greatly disappoint and anger many diehard Canadian hockey fans; in 2019, the Montreal Canadiens saw an average of over 21,000 fans per game, while the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers each attracted only an average of just over 14,000 fans per game. What is certain about the 2021 NHL season, to the relief of teams and players, is that it will not take place in a bubble format like the playoffs. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college teams in the Northeast and Midwest have begun their seasons and have done so successfully without Covid-19 becoming a significant barrier, as none have allowed live fans. Certain professional leagues in Europe have also resumed play and have also done so successfully. These models show that NHL teams can safely travel to play games, and that a bubble format is not needed.
Last week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed that there would likely be a Canadian division featuring all the Canadian teams: the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, and the Vancouver Canucks. With seven teams, this proposed Candian division would be similarly sized to the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Pacific, and Central Divisions into which the NHL is divided under normal circumstances. The league would then redraw the 24 American teams into 3 new divisions given the Canadian teams’ exclusion. Given that U.S.-Canada travel restrictions would prohibit inter-divisional play with the proposed Canadian division, for the sake of fairness, Bettman has stated that teams would only play other teams within their division. In a recent interview with The Maccabi USA Sports Show, Bettman revealed that it would be unrealistic to start a traditional 82 game season in January. Rumors speculate that the season could be condensed so each team would play 56 games. The NHL would likely not allow any fans to attend games live, following the same no-fan policy of college hockey.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has been detrimental to NHL revenue. This is especially difficult for the league as its 10-year television contract with NBC expires starting with the 2021-2022 season. The 2020-2021 season would have been key for the NHL to generate revenue in order to increase leverage in striking a deal with broadcasting networks for its next contract. Similarly to the NBA and NFL, the significantly reduced revenue this year for the NHL will have consequences on team budgets and major impacts on player salaries, both of which will likely be reduced.