How the NHL Hopes to Finish Its Season

Every June, someone will lift it, then hand it to another. Most people who get a hold of it will give it a kiss. It will parade its way through a major city with those who have captured it, before spending the summer traveling the world, through fishing villages and large cities, usually in Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, and the United States.

The winners will take it to their hometowns and take cherished photos, sometimes gag photos with their children, or some sort of alcohol, inside it, but fortunately never both. Finally it returns to its own home in Toronto, Ontario and waits through the long, cold winter for it to take its tour all over again, most likely with another set of victors.

The Stanley Cup is the most cherished trophy in all of sports. Yet, instead of rejoicing in the previously scheduled Conference Finals, the hockey world joins the rest of society indoors for an undetermined period of time.

However, while things will be different from any past experience, the National Hockey League hopes to make sure people will still be able to battle through pain, both physical and emotional, for Lord Stanley’s Cup later this summer. This is according to longtime National Hockey League writer Michael Farber.

Hall of Fame hockey writer Michael Farber was a beat writer for the Montreal Canadiens for 15 years

Farber, who began writing for Sports Illustrated in 1994, says that the NHL would like to play out the approximately dozen regular season games per team “in a perfect world.” Concluding the regular season is important, not only because of the tight playoff race, but also because it would determine the draft order of non-playoff teams.

Farber also says finishing the regular season will “bring some integrity to the exercise.” In addition, he mentions the NHL’s smaller TV contract in relation to other sports leagues, causing the league to rely more upon gate revenue. However, the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak and the length of the quarantine in both the United States and Canada makes it more likely that the league will jump straight to the playoffs upon its return.

There is also concern as to whether the league will return at all considering recent news. The American Hockey League, roughly the NHL equivalent of Triple-A baseball, has done something not even World War II cause it to do: cancel the remainder of its regular season and postseason for the first time in its 84-year history. This leads to questions about whether minor league players will be conditioned enough to replace NHL stars in case of injury, as well as whether this will lead to the NHL season’s cancellation.

Though the AHL is the premier minor hockey league, its season’s cancellation is simply the tip of the iceberg. The Canadian Hockey League, comprised of the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League, has cancelled the Memorial Cup playoffs. Hockey Canada, the country’s national governing hockey body, cancelled its season on March 13, and seven of the top European leagues cancelled all remaining games this season as well.

While there are rumors that the NHL will hold a 24-team playoff, according to Farber, the NHL’s ideal return would be a conclusion of the regular season in July, followed by the standard 16-team playoff format playing out in August and September. Like other leagues, the NHL plans on bringing back its fan base into arenas slowly, so the next NHL games will feature few or no fans. Farber says that, considering COVID-19 hotspots like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Montreal, the league is planning to commence play at a small amount of neutral sites.

Farber says NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says the league would not play in non-NHL arenas. This makes it easier for the league to access replay equipment more easily, have sufficient space, and play games in regulation-size rinks. Farber also says the NHL will need at least two neutral locations, so there are four dressing rooms that the league can properly sanitize without any overlap between teams.

Farber’s evaluation of Commissioner Bettman may be representative of when the NHL may return. Farber calls Bettman “very smart, deliberate, and cautious”, meaning he wishes as much as anyone not to see the NHL season resume only to see players test positive for Coronavirus upon their return. Civic leaders are facing pressure to re-open, and leaders of an industry as popular as sports are bound to face the same music.

Logistically speaking, the NHL would also need locations with sufficient practice facilities and hotel space for 7-8 teams per city. Farber says the NHL is looking at places, most notably Toronto, the highest-populated city in Canada, and Columbus, the 14th most populated city in the United States, with a population of nearly 900,000.

If Toronto and Columbus do become neutral-site hosts, the former would presumably be the Eastern Conference home, which would be easier on most of its teams, especially those in the playoff picture when the NHL suspended play. As the crow flies, Toronto sits within 600 miles of every Eastern Conference team, with the exceptions of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, making travel easier. Columbus, on the other hand, is not only an Eastern Conference home city, but also is within 600 miles of only two Western Conference home cities: Chicago and Nashville.

Though the Western Conference travel seems potentially strenuous, the league would allow its players sufficient rest by not starting the 2020-21 season until November or December. Yet, the NHL would still play an 82-game schedule by forgoing the All-Star break to make up for lost time, possibly end the season a little less late than this year, and eventually get back to normal. Farber says there may be a bye week if that plan comes to fruition.

However, things are further complicated by the fact that the NHL is a two-country league. Canada is not only hockey’s birthplace, but also is home to seven NHL teams, nearly one-quarter of the league’s franchises. The speed of reopening is varying drastically between U.S. states, so the timing will definitely vary between the two countries.

Those are the logistics, and one can only speculate now as to what will happen, considering all the variables, but one must also consider the commonalities of an NHL game and how they might change. Every goaltender will have to clutch tightly to his water bottle, and skaters will no longer be able to grab a random one from behind the bench. For that matter, water bottles will be even tougher to use, depending on how often players can remove their mouth guards.

When they go onto the ice to treat badly injured players, trainers will need their rubber gloves (though this next phrase is being used a lot) now more than ever, especially if there is a cut. After a goal, the celebrating players on the ice will no longer be able to join in a tight-knit circle of usually five. Players will have to take high-sticking with a larger grain of salt because of facial contact with a hockey stick that transmits matter from every other stick and puck on the ice.

Though controversial to some, fighting in the NHL will take a drastic drop. If it is standard not to touch one’s own face, then not touching someone else’s is a given. Lastly, one can only imagine the restraint a person needs to not touch, hoist, or kiss the Stanley Cup with his bare hands, let alone with gloves, especially if he has won it for the very first time.

There are even further major implications stemming from whatever the NHL’s decision is. For one thing, if the NHL does not finish this season, then the Toronto Maple Leafs will tie the New York Rangers for the longest Stanley Cup Championship drought at 54 years. The one characteristic favoring the Maple Leafs, however, is that those 54 years would include the cancellation of two seasons: this one, and the 2004-05 season, which was cancelled due to a lockout.

Frankly, the longer the quarantine goes, the less likely it becomes that the NHL will return to pass the Stanley Cup on to the next champion (or perhaps the same, since the St. Louis Blues led the Western Conference when quarantine began). Since 1893, when the Stanley Cup was first presented, there have only been two calendar years in which the trophy was not presented at all.

As previously mentioned, the NHL came to a complete halt for an entire season due to a lockout. The other time was in 1919. The Montreal Canadiens, now the NHL’s all-time leader with 24 Stanley Cup titles, were looking for what would have been their second Stanley Cup Championship, while the Seattle Metropolitans (that’s right, there has been a team in Seattle before) hoped to beat Montreal in the finals for the second time in three years.

The entire series took place in Seattle, whose home team won two of the first three games in a best three-out-of-five series. The two teams then competed in a masterpiece of a game, an affair that finished scoreless after even 20 minutes splits evenly between two overtime periods, and warranted a standing ovation, even though there was no solid conclusion. Montreal tied the series with an overtime victory in game five to force a winner-take-all game six.

Just a few hours before puck drop, several players on both teams fell ill due to the misnamed “Spanish” influenza outbreak, causing Canadiens Manager George Kennedy to forfeit the series, though Metropolitans Manager-Coach Pete Muldoon declined the offer.

Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall lost his battle with influenza-related pneumonia just four days after the series’ cancellation. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. Kennedy would also suffer from the outbreak and, though he fought a longer battle, passed in 1921.

Fortunately, the NHL has not faced as mortal a challenge from the coronavirus as it did with influenza over a century ago.

While the hockey world may be home right now, and the NHL’s immediate future is uncertain, one must remember that, after the influenza outbreak stopped the sports world, the puck was dropped again.

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