The good news is that progress and momentum continue to build toward the NHL attempting to finish off the 2019-20 NHL season.
The latest development has the league talking about two hub cities where 12 teams apiece would compete in a postseason tournament to award a Stanley Cup champion.
Presumably one would be an East Coast Hub and one would be a West Coast Hub, and one would expect places like Las Vegas and Florida to be the lead candidates given all factors involved.
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The details need to be worked out on a 24-team tournament, of course, and how a round-robin mini-tournament for play-in teams would work while also warming up the higher seeds to get ready for the traditional Stanley Cup Playoff series.
It won’t be easy or uncomplicated.
But it’s encouraging news that there is so much optimism that everybody will see playoff hockey this summer, and it will keep growing as COVID-19 testing becomes more abundant, more accurate and more rapid in both administration and results.
One other undeniable truth? The NHL isn’t going to feel much like the NHL when it does resume.
“Whether we’re going to play some regular season games or we’re going to jump into some sort of a playoff format, it’s still unknown. I just prefer to play hockey. I’ll be honest with you,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara last week during a Bruins virtual town hall with season ticket holders. “Whether it’s jumping into the playoffs or playing some sort of games to get ready for the playoffs, you just need to go with the flow.”
If it’s good enough for Chara to go with the flow, it should be good enough for everybody else.
Some of that will be about the empty arenas where other sports leagues are tinkering with pumping in crowd noise or filling the stands either virtually, or by the odd sight of placing creepy mannequins in the stands to replace ticket-buying fans. There’s a perfectly legit question as to whether that would distract players more than totally empty seats would.
It goes beyond the optics of fans being barred from NHL arenas, however.
Just look at what’s happening in Major League Baseball where a set of safety guidelines is being proposed for play to resume during the coronavirus outbreak. They go from no spitting and no high-fives all the way down to a strict “no fighting” ban that would result in stiff penalties levied against players who break the rules.
There was no mention of refraining from licking the faces of opponents, but that may already be self-explanatory at this point.
Just think about how that would impact playoff hockey, though.
Sure, everybody can live without hockey hugs after players score goals even if that might be one of the more difficult habits to break. But removing post-whistle scrums and subtracting the traditional nastiness that comes along with Stanley Cup Playoff hockey is going to make it feel like there’s a bunch of Lady Byng clones on ice playing against each other.
Vancouver Athletic writer Thomas Drance, who brings a bit of a different perspective given he worked PR for the Florida Panthers for a few seasons, outlines some of the more interesting challenges facing the return of the NHL. They range from small issues (a manager missing a game because he was quarantined after sneaking out for face cream and toothpaste) to larger issues (asymptomatic players testing positive), but it illustrates the amount of hurdle-clearing that will need to happen throughout any summer session where NHL games are played.
My question is whether this is going to feel like Stanley Cup playoff hockey at all given everything that will be changed or missing.
Probably not, at least at first. But it will be a return of the sport, which is the first massive step in any return to whatever normal is going to be once we come back online as a functioning society.
Clearly there isn’t much fighting in playoff hockey to begin with, so that won’t be a big change. And there will be old-time hockey people concerned that outlawing fighting in hockey now will be something that’s rolled over into a regular return of the NHL someday.
But there’s always been passion and nastiness, and even a little good, old-fashioned hatred between opponents over the course of a seven-game NHL playoff series. It may be impossible to manufacture that given all the constraints and controls that will be in place for the “new normal” of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But it’s also part of the lesson everybody needs to learn across the country, and across the entire world right now.
Things aren’t going to be “normal” or “the same” as they were before the coronavirus outbreak anytime soon, and perhaps not at all given how much COVID-19 has shaken the economy, our day-to-day lives and pretty much every facet of life. Instead it’s about everybody adapting and adjusting to what’s best for the whole of society, and it’s up to pro sports to help lead the way as they do in so many times of change and turmoil.
Perhaps people will more readily accept how different things will need to be when they see their favorite athletes setting the example of donning a mask or practicing social distancing while on the bench awaiting their next shift.
Maybe someday we’ll all get back to packed NHL arenas with players pushing, shoving and breaking out a can of nasty against each other with so much on the line during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For now, we should all accept the potential return of the NHL in any way, shape or form we can provided it’s healthy, safe and feasible for everybody involved.
It’s not going to look like anything we’ve ever seen before. But that’s okay because we’ll all need to be open-minded when it comes to change for the foreseeable future.
We might as well adopt that mentality for the NHL just like everything else with a legit shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs a couple of months from now.