Bruins

Bruins

There have been plenty of times when the NHL has been the butt of the joke in the sporting world.

There are the work stoppages that included an entire lost season.

The NHL website that, until fairly recently, couldn’t even simply give you league leader statistics when you logged on.

There’s always been a nagging feeling that the NHL acted as the inferior younger brother to the NBA when it came to national interest across the United States.

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There’s the constant, repeating scene of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman getting booed in pretty much every NHL arena when he hands the Stanley Cup off to the winner, or when he announces the first round picks during NHL Draft weekend, or sometimes maladroitly navigating through all those work stoppages of the past including the lockout that wiped out half of the 2012-13 NHL season.

There have been NHL nadirs, to be sure.

But through all that stuff, it’s clear that the 27 years Bettman has put in running the NHL has also taught him all the lessons he would need for this COVID-19 outbreak. Give the NHL credit here: It has handled the COVID-19 situation better than any of the other major pro sports across North America and that has put the league in position for a successful return to play a month from now.  

The latest news is that it will be the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Toronto that will be named the NHL hub cities as the league is rightfully pulling out of the United States completely while our country grapples with an out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak. This is 100 percent the correct call and is being finalized less than two weeks away from the 24 NHL teams readying for a July 10 open to training camps across North America.

 

The proper, informed option for any of the pro sports leagues was to wait until the last possible moment to decide on host cities and utilize the latest COVID-19 developments and information to make the safest possible choice for everybody putting on the games.

The league was rightfully concerned by what was happening in Las Vegas where hotel workers and arena staff would not be under the same quarantine rules as players and personnel, and therefore would have been threats to infect NHL personnel and shut the entire operation down.

At the outset when the NBA chose Orlando as its hub of operations this summer, the move was widely lauded because the NBA, Disney, ESPN and ABC could effectively isolate the entire league to the Disney campus while playing the games. Hopefully it will work out that way even as COVID-19 case numbers are skyrocketing in Florida, but clearly there has been some uneasiness among NBA personnel while watching the dire situation play out in the Sunshine State.

Meanwhile the NHL appeared as if it was lagging behind and perhaps even in danger of not returning because it was holding off on announcing locations. The league still hasn’t even zeroed in on an official start date that’s reportedly going to be at the end of July for the qualifying round games.

Instead, the NHL slow-played the process while working hand-in-hand with NHLPA head Don Fehr and a Return to Play committee with a number of influential NHL players. The league made certain to choose the safest options in Edmonton and Toronto that could maximize security, health, integrity of the game and still provide adequate facilities for players who will effectively be marooned there for a few weeks to a few months.

"We will create an environment that will be exciting, will be entertaining, will be consistent with a competition that has integrity. Everybody we’ve been doing has been a joint effort [with the players] working together to make sure we’re adhering to the protocols, which will be very strict," said Bettman, during a June program on ESPN that hosted all the commissioners talking about a return to play. “I think everybody can feel good, based on the combination of the play-in round and the way we're going to run the playoffs, that this will be a full competition which will bring out the best in our teams and our players. The Stanley Cup champion will be deserving of that crown and the most storied trophy in all of sports."

Now the NHL and the NHL players are on the verge of approving an entire return to play document, site locations, start dates and it sounds like they will even tack on a couple of years to a CBA that was expiring soon, with an eye toward steadying the ship through unprecedentedly difficult financial years expected in the near future.

 

The NHL has done it without embarrassing themselves like Major League Baseball did by squabbling over money, and without having any players like Tom Brady decide to go rogue on the NFL while showing that marketing themselves was more important than embracing and adhering to the safety protocols.

Instead the NHL quietly, sagaciously and efficiently navigated through a volatile COVID-19 epidemic and all the while has kept the players to under 5 percent positive COVID-19 test results with no isolation rules currently in place.

Clearly the real challenge will come when training camps open and games get played in the hub cities, and the league will be challenged to contain positive tests and avoid outbreaks while getting through a few months of playoff hockey. But it appears as if the NHL is at least going to get there to give it a try with very little complications to this point.

The sometimes-maligned NHL is on the verge of a return with zero fuss, and as much care and forethought as possible while heading into an admittedly scary unknown of playing through a global pandemic.

That is the best that can be done under the trying circumstances right now. The NHL has handled these trying times in way that’s looking like the gold standard for the rest of pro sports across North America, so those other leagues would do well to take notes and pay attention while everybody remains hopeful that circumstances will allow for the return of hockey a month from now.