Column: It’s time for the NHL to cancel the rest of the regular season
The NHL, still clinging to its hopes of finishing the season — and still clinging to fans’ ticket money as long as it classifies games as postponed instead of canceled — has prolonged its self-quarantine recommendation through April 30. That means hockey won’t return before mid-May if at all, perilously near the point when it would be wise to lock up the Zamboni until next season.
Maybe that time already has arrived. But there’s one reasonable option left before the ice is melted: Ditch the rest of the regular season.
Cancel the remaining games, about 15% of the schedule, so ticket-holding fans can get their money back to buy necessities. Cancel those games so teams that were eliminated don’t have to go through a farce of a training camp to play a dozen games just so Commissioner Gary Bettman can say the season was complete.
Forget the idea of a play-in tournament for teams that weren’t in playoff spots because it would devalue regular-season games that were played. Go right to the Stanley Cup playoffs if you must go at all, with qualifiers based on point percentage because teams had played a varying number of games when Bettman halted play March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest extension of the league’s stay-at-home recommendation, announced Tuesday, was the third delay. In a one-paragraph statement, the league said that after consulting with medical experts and representatives of the NHL Players’ Assn., it had “made the decision to extend the self-quarantine recommendation for NHL players, coaches and hockey staff through and including Thursday, April 30. The self-quarantine had been in place through April 15.”
With the Kings out of the postseason race, Doughty is focused on the bigger picture when it comes to finishing the NHL season amid the coronavirus.
The decision wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t definitive. It couldn’t be. There are still too many unknowns to set firm target dates for even a gradual return to something resembling normalcy.
Soon after the NHL had pushed back its potential return, California Gov. Gavin Newsom cast a cloud over the notion of sports returning in the near future when he said it’s unlikely large events can resume this summer. “The prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and get to a vaccine,” he said during a news conference.
President Trump said Tuesday that he had appointed the commissioners of the major sports leagues as well as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft to a committee that will guide the reopening of the country. That reopening, presumably, will be led by those leagues. “We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old,” Trump said at his daily news briefing.
In the case of the NHL, which stands to miss out on about $1 billion in revenues if it can’t resume, teams were asked to provide potential home dates into August. Why Bettman considers the season so sacred is a mystery, considering he wiped out the entire 2004-05 season in a labor dispute. Ending in July would be late enough but might be possible with a condensed playoff format, maybe with the first two rounds as best-of-five series and the last two as best-of-seven.
Training camp for next season could be shortened and the 2020-21 opener delayed a few weeks. Eliminate bye weeks and gaps in the schedule and a “normal” cycle could resume.
Speaking on Monday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Bettman acknowledged players would need two or three weeks of training camp before competition resumes. If individual states’ restrictions on gatherings are relaxed May 1, that means the NHL couldn’t return before May 15. There are Canadian guidelines to consider too, plus potential immigration issues for players who went overseas to wait this out.
“Until there’s a sense that people can get together, not just to fill our arenas but even our players to get together to work out, we don’t know when we can come back,” Bettman told CNN. “We’re exploring and want to be prepared for every option, whenever the circumstances present themselves. So, we haven’t ruled anything in, we haven’t ruled anything out and we’ll be prepared to go in whatever direction makes sense at the time.”
Alexis Lafreniere was ranked as the No. 1 North American skater by NHL Central Scouting in advance of the draft. Tim Stuetzle is the top international skater.
Bettman acknowledged speculation the NHL has considered neutral sites such as Grand Forks, N.D., home of the small but impressive Ralph Engelstad Arena. “The fact is, when you’re in the position that all of us are in, you have to be prepared to relaunch when the opportunity presents itself, which means you have to not rule out any conceivable alternative and be prepared on every one even if some of them ultimately turn out not to be realistic,” he said.
Grand Forks is unrealistic as a site for 16 teams in first-round play. It’s unfair to ask players to live in a bubble apart from their families, similar to a rumored option that would put every Major League Baseball team in Arizona. Staging games in NHL cities in empty arenas, a step the NHL was prepared to take before it learned the NBA had shut down because of Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, remains a possibility, but that would be a hollow replacement for the real thing.
And so we wait, at least until April 30 and probably beyond. Ideally, NHL executives and their NHLPA counterparts will use this time to discuss ways to make the game better and continue keeping fans engaged when this is over. In the meantime, there are old games to watch. Many of them are pretty entertaining.
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