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Questions for NHL and its Return to Play

Is hockey really going to be the first back?

If hockey returns, will NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman still be annoying? Yes, but, we'll be happy to have some form of sports back.
Charles Krupa | AP file photo

Who would have thought that the National Hockey League of the Big Four sports would be the first one to try to come back?

After all, the NHL, more than any other North American league, has put the fun in dysfunctional. With four work stoppages, including one which wiped out an entire season (2004-05), hockey is a great sport run by a bunch of nimrods who can’t shoot straight.

So imagine the surprise when the NHL announced its Return to Play plan starting with 24 teams (instead of the usual 16) making the playoffs. This reeks of competence as the first sport to return to action will reap a financial whirlwind.

Baseball is facing a myriad of labor issues on top of COVID-19, and I doubt the sport will be back in 2020, while the NBA keeps on making noise about resuming, but can’t hammer out the dets, as the kids say. The NFL will return in September because there is simply too much money involved and the entire country will riot without football.

But if the NHL surprisingly wants to take the lead, here are some issues it must confront.

Format

Twenty-four teams are probably too many. Of course, the NHL is trying to add more games to appease television and address competitive concerns with teams that were on the playoff bubble when the regular season came to a screeching halt on March 13.

But should the No. 12-seeded Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9) really have a right to knock out the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6) by winning the best of-5 series? In theory, the regular season should mean something. (Oops, Freud forgot he was writing about the NHL. The regular season doesn’t mean jack in hockey.)

I would go with the top 10 teams in each conference for a 20-team field. (Ahem, NBA. And yes, the NBA is watching.)

By the by, the Colorado Avalanche are the No. 2 seed in the West and will have a bye through the play-in series(es). The Avs will play a round-robin with St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars with top-four seeding on the line.

Travel

Yes, it seems that there will be two hubs for these playoffs, one for the West (Vegas, most likely) and East (Atlantic City? … I feel bad for the teams that won’t be able to go to a casino in their spare time.)

But how do the players get to these hubs? The NHL is 17% European. The CDC frowns on nonessential travel between Europe and the states. There are flights, but if you do, you have to be quarantined for 14 days.

What about travel between Canada and the United States? (Yes, a major concern as NHL has a Great White North-tint.) Likely feasible, but the 14-day quarantine is still in play.

This means, if everyone hopped a plane this week, teams wouldn’t be at full strength likely until June 15.

Testing

The NHL’s announcement was conspicuously short on details about COVID-19 testing specifics. Given that with players, coaches, team doctors and staff, we’re looking at 50 or so people with each team, there has to be regular testing for the coronavirus.

How does this happen? Pro sports, as much as we love them, cannot be seen as taking away testing from the general public. Yes, there’s also the complicated matter of what happens if someone tests positive. But it’s going to be a PR disaster if any league is seen as putting a burden on the general testing supply.

The NHL, as well as the NBA, MLB and the NFL, need to be making large donations to public testing and/or paying for its own testing.

Timing

The regular four rounds of the NHL Playoffs take two months. Since we’re looking at five rounds with the play-in series, assume 9-10 weeks. If the games start July 1 — we need quarantining and training camps — we’re looking at the NHL season ending at the earliest in mid-September.

Meanwhile, the 2020-21 season would normally begin in October, which makes for a short offseason. Both the NHL and the NBA are going to have to figure this out. Do both leagues shorten the 2020-21 regular seasons? Do they have compressed 2020 playoff schedules?

Help us out here.

The Stanley Cup

The best part of hockey is the hoisting of the Stanley Cup. The captain gets it and passes it to teammate after teammate and everyone drinks out of it. This seems highly un-COVID-19-like behavior, people.

A truthful answer to all these questions? They’re going to have to have to figure it out on the fly. And this is not just the NHL. It’s the NBA, MLB and the NFL as well.

We are in a new era and the leagues are going to make it up as they go.

In the meantime, does anyone want to try to explain offsides and icing to Americans when the NHL returns to television?


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