- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
It has been 32 days since the NHL decided to hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season, joining a staggering list of cancellations and postponements related to COVID-19.
As players, execs and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will be providing updates every Monday, answering all the burning questions on the various angles of the NHL’s relation to the pandemic; although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been substantial developments since last week’s update. Get caught up here:
Has there been an update on when play could resume?
Emily Kaplan: Not really. The NHL is still aiming to stage the Stanley Cup Playoffs this summer, if it gets the OK from health authorities. This will be contingent on where North America is on the curve, what stay-at-home orders are still in place and the availability of quick-turnaround testing — and whether it is ethical for a private company like the NHL to secure a large quantity of those tests.
On Friday, we asked deputy commissioner Bill Daly if the NHL had a date in mind when it had to decide whether it was feasible to resume play and try to salvage the 2019-20 season.
“We’re just starting to get our minds around that,” Daly said. “It’s kind of a combination of things, like when we can start a regular season [in 2020-21] and how much time we need for an offseason, and then what does the playoff format look like, in terms of knowing what you need to have a regular season. We’re starting to get our heads around that a little bit. I don’t think I’m prepared to share any dates yet.”
Daly admitted that truncated playoff series — which are usually best of seven — is definitely an option if the NHL is facing a time constraint. “I would say that a best-of-one is not something we would ever go to,” Daly said. “I’ve always had the caveat that everything is on the table and nothing is out of the question. I would say there would be a strong opposition to ever creating a playoff where it was a single elimination. I think best of three is more possible, not preferred, but more possible than a best-of-one scenario.”
The NHL and NHLPA have been in constant communication throughout the pause, and by all accounts, the sides have been collaborative and the relationship seems strong, which is one positive to come out of this. Daly said the NHLPA has articulated an amount of time that players would need for a “proper” offseason before the 2020-21 season can begin. Would the players need four weeks? Six weeks? Two months?
“We’ve talked about that generally, and we have a good idea,” Daly said. “But I don’t want to get too specific.”
Is the goal still to complete the 2019-20 regular season in some manner before the playoffs begin?
Greg Wyshynski: That’s the objective for both the NHL and its players, as long as the calendar permits it. Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the NHLPA executive director, told Sirius XM NHL Network Radio’s “The Hot Stove” that the players believe “there’s a path towards” finishing the regular season and “there’s a fair amount of optimism that we’re going to be able to play again, in all or part of, the rest of the season.”
That greatly depends on how much time they’ll have to prepare for regular-season games and the playoffs this summer. “The biggest issue for our guys, in these return-to-play scenarios, is that they’re just not on the ice,” said Schneider. “It might be on a limited basis [for] some of the guys over in Europe or Sweden, or something like that. The guys can train at home, but lack of ice time is a critical thing for our guys.”
The NHLPA had its first formal (and socially distant) meeting last week with the NHL leadership, including the league’s scheduling guru, Steve Hatze Petros. NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had been in contact with each other on a daily basis, but this meeting was a chance to have a larger exchange of ideas.
The NHLPA wanted to get a “working group” together to come up with “a couple of different scenarios that are accepted to both sides, so when things flip and we’re able to get back, we would be in a much better position, ready to make a decision,” said Schneider.
Is there concern that even if fans are allowed to go to games, attendance will be lower than usual?
Wyshynski: There is, for a variety of reasons. The economic impact of the pandemic can’t be comprehended at this point, insofar as how it will affect entertainment expenditures such as hockey tickets. But the health considerations are the real conundrum: Even if the NHL is allowed to play games with fans in the arenas, how many fans are going to opt not to attend until, say, there’s a viable treatment or vaccine for COVID-19?
To that end, NHL teams are starting to consider what games with a lowered arena capacity could look like — either their own cap on attendance or a social-distancing mandate from the government that could cap it.
The Carolina Hurricanes were the first team to indicate they’re taking this into consideration.
“We have a task force that we’ve put in place internally to talk about all of these options,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said on a video conference call last week. “One of them is that we come back with no fans, and how we’re going to deal with that. The second option is we come back and can only have — pick the number — five or eight thousand people in the building. The third option is that we can be totally open. We’ve talked at length and have plans for all of those situations.”
Daly said on Friday that the Hurricanes didn’t necessarily get that notion from the NHL, but that capped attendance has been considered in other sports.
“Before the shutdown of all sports, I do think there were some college teams that were experimenting with social distancing in the arena. I can’t tell you what the outcome of those experiments were,” Daly said. “I just think it’s just Carolina being comprehensive in understanding what its options are in every eventuality. We’re all trying to do that in a world where there are a lot of unknowns.”
Has there been any update on which cities could host empty-arena games?
Kaplan: Among the reported possible locations for neutral-site games, which would likely be held in empty arenas, are Grand Forks, North Dakota; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
But Daly said the NHL hasn’t even “created the field yet” in determining which sites would work. In fact, once word got out that the NHL was considering neutral-site locations, cities and venues across North America began reaching out to the league, pitching themselves as potential hosts.
“We do have people putting together the comprehensive laundry list of what we would need from facilities and evaluating some facilities on some level,” he said. “But I can’t tell you we’ve even finished creating a list [of potential sites], much less narrowed it down.”
NBA teams have been adamant about having time for traditional draft-combine activities such as workouts and interviews before the league holds its draft. Are NHL teams saying the same thing?
Wyshynski: There’s a reason the NHL postponed rather than canceled its scouting combine in Buffalo, which was scheduled from June 1-6. If possible, the teams want a chance to properly scrutinize prospects before making draft decisions.
“Obviously, our managers have similar concerns as the NBA managers. The more information you can have or obtain before you make draft-day decisions, the better,” said Daly. “If we can do some form of combine and create some opportunity for clubs to do due diligence on players in advance of the draft, we’ll certainly try to accommodate that. If we can’t, we can’t. I think our clubs understand that.”
Is the NHL preparing for a “virtual draft” like the NFL is about to attempt?
Wyshynski: If the NHL draft has to happen with all 31 teams in remote locations, the league believes it’s ready for it.
“I actually think that’s pretty easy,” said Daly. “It’s almost like [going] back to the future, right? Our draft, a long time ago, was held by the telephone. If modern technology can be used to create video images, it’s really no different than transmitted selections over an electronic medium.”
(Now, if only there were a way for a virtual Gary Bettman to butt into the selections to announce a trade …)
Is there anything new on the revenue shortfall and the players’ escrow?
Wyshynski: As of Friday, the NHLPA hadn’t decided what to do with the last paycheck due to the players for 2019-20, which is scheduled for April 15. They could opt to put some, all or none of it into an escrow payment to the owners for lost revenue this season.
But the NHLPA and the owners did finalize and process escrow payments for the 2018-19 season, which had been pending. The NHLPA confirmed that approximately $230 million will be released to the owners, while the players will get back about $80 million from their withholdings. Remember: The collective bargaining agreement mandates a 50-50 split in revenue between the owners and players, and escrow withholdings help to balance that split.
How does the NHL plan to stay relevant at a time where there are no games?
Kaplan: Just as your workplace has embraced Zoom, so, too, has the NHL. The league has gone all-in on the video-conferencing platform.
It arranged media calls with most of the league’s superstars — Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid among many others — and has pumped out that content on all of its platforms, including releasing this commercial in honor of the postponed playoffs. Individual teams are arranging Zoom calls with their local reporters, while the NHL has organized some more lighthearted calls (a reunion between Patrick Marleau, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner), plus calls with coaches, as well as an international-outreach effort. For example, the league put on a call of Swedish players speaking Swedish for Swedish reporters. On what would have been the first night of the playoffs last week, the NHL arranged a virtual reunion with the entire St. Louis Blues team, which will be aired on NBC Sports on Monday night.
The NBA, meanwhile, is putting on a HORSE tournament, which are being filmed at players’ homes and aired on ESPN. Several NBA stars, WNBA players and NBA alumni signed on to participate. I asked Daly how ambitious the NHL would be with their alternate programming and if they could put on something similar.
“I actually think we’ve been remarkably active in creating all kinds of different content,” Daly said. “Our players have been super cooperative. With all due respect to the NBA, I think we’ve pushed out far more original content than any other sports league at this point in time, and I think that will continue.”
Have any more players tested positive? Have any positive cases recovered?
Wyshynski: The last positive test confirmed by the NHL was an unnamed Colorado Avalanche player on April 7, the third member of that franchise to contract coronavirus. The Avalanche were on a California road trip before the season was paused; so were the Ottawa Senators, the other NHL team impacted by COVID-19. Five Senators players, radio color analyst Gord Wilson and one staffer tested positive for COVID-19. But Ottawa coach D.J. Smith said on Wednesday that “they’re all on the other side of it now.”
What if the NHL restarts and a player opts not to return to the ice due to COVID-19 concerns?
Wyshynski: This could otherwise be called “The Roman Reigns Issue.” The WWE superstar recently opted out of WrestleMania and other events due to being immunocompromised and out of concern for his family contracting the virus. There are hundreds of players in the NHL; what if some of them aren’t keen on returning to play unless there’s a treatment or vaccine available?
Daly said that hasn’t been a topic of conversation in the NHL yet.
“Obviously, [the players] want to be healthy and safe,” he said. “If a particular player had a particular concern, we’ve had similar situations in the past, and we as a league have been sensitive and receptive to that situation. Obviously, if [concerns like this] become too widespread, then it becomes more problematic in terms of our ability to get back. But that will be handled up front. All indications at this point, as far as I can tell, is that the players are very anxious to get back.”
If the league is going to lose substantial revenue, how will that affect next season’s salary cap?
Kaplan: Let’s begin with this: Before the pandemic hit, the NHL was in really good shape. At the GM meetings in early March, Gary Bettman boasted — as he has the past few years — that the NHL was as robust as ever, especially as it plans to welcome Seattle for the 2021-22 season as its 32nd franchise (and accept Seattle’s $650 million expansion fee). The league told its general managers in early March that it projected the salary cap for next season would be between $84 million and $88.2 million. That would mean a minimum 3% increase from the $81.5 million limit this season. Obviously, that was according to projected revenues, and we know the league, which is quite gate-dependent, is taking a hit due to the pandemic.
“Whatever our salary cap is, or gets set at for next year, is something that we and the players’ association have to talk about and agree on,” Daly said on Friday. “Obviously, it looks pretty certain that there will be a pretty substantial shortfall in projected revenues, when we’re able to say the ’19-20 season is done. If we adhere to the formula that is in the CBA, that would produce a significantly lower cap than we’ve had this year. Which I don’t think is necessarily practical nor realistic, either, for the clubs or the players. So that’s obviously something we need to address with the players’ association.”
Is the NHL concerned about some ownership groups not being able to survive this shutdown, and the subsequent economic impact?
Wyshynski: Daly told us that “there’s certainly no indication that there are” reasons for the NHL to be concerned about its teams and team owners during the pandemic.
“I’ll go back to what I know to be the case: Our ownership is stronger than it’s ever been in the league’s history, financially,” he said. “The entire economy globally has taken an enormous, devastating hit. That certainly involves some of the businesses that our owners are in, significant losses of revenue and profitability. But we have no indication that any club is at the breaking point as far as not being able to meet its obligations to the National Hockey League.”
Finally, what’s your latest pop culture addiction this week?
Kaplan: I’ve rewatched the flu-epidemic episode of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” — Season 9, Episode 7: “The Gang Gets Quarantined” — twice since I’ve been stuck at home. It holds up really well. It’s available on Hulu (which is owned by Disney), for anyone looking for some on-the-nose humor.
Wyshynski: I’ve been tearing through sports documentaries lately. Having gone through the full run of 30 for 30 — and if you haven’t, they’re all on ESPN+ — a few other docs caught my attention this week. “Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story” (Amazon Prime) is equal parts a tribute to the heavyweight hockey champ’s fighting prowess and a sad examination of his off-ice demons. “Diego Maradona” (HBO) makes incredible use of archival footage in telling the story of the soccer legend; and the second season of “Dark Side of the Ring” (VICE) remains an illuminating look at pro wrestling’s most infamous figures and moments, kicking off with the complicated legacy of Chris Benoit. Give documentaries a spin if you’re looking for a sports fix.
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