NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took part in a digital keynote interview with Leaders Week on Monday and provided several important updates for where the NHL stands in terms of a return to play. The media was not privy to the interview, but NHL.com columnist Nick Cotsonika was allowed to listen. He joined Rob Carlin for a special episode of the Capitals Talk Podcast to provide the latest on the league's efforts to resume the 2019-20 season.
Be sure to listen to the podcast here, but here are some of the key takeaways.
Resuming the season isn't about making money, it's about trying to lose less
With every passing day it becomes fairer to wonder if the 2019-20 season is going to be finished at all. The season pause has now stretched to over two months and the league has not even progressed to the second phase yet which would see players returning to their respective cities. If and when the league does return to play, it still remains several weeks away at the very least.
But if you are among those questioning what's the point? Cotsonika says it is about losing as little money as possible.
It is easy to take a cynical view in this situation and believe the league is pushing for a return to play to try to cash-in on everyone's desire to see live sports again, but Cotsonika says that is just not the case.
"To think they’re going to come back to some windfall in the short term is not reality," Cotsonikia said. "They’re coming back for the integrity of the game, believe it or not. Believe it or not there is a genuine integrity of the game here. They want to play this season, they want to award the Cup in a way that has integrity. It’s history, it’s important, it’s what we all play for, it’s why we’re all in what we do. From a business standpoint, it’s to lose less money. They’re going to lose money. They’re not going to make a killing coming back."
For a league like the AHL, it does not make financial sense to try to come back without fans because their profits are so heavily dependent on the gate (ticket sales and concessions). The NHL is also a gate-driven league, but not to the same degree. Given the league's media and television partnerships, the league actually stands to lose more money by foregoing the rest of the season than it would if it is able to hold a postseason even without the fans. That's why the NHL is not going to cancel the season unless it absolutely has to.
The league still believes it can finish the 2019-20 season and keep an 82-game season for 2020-21
Regardless of how much the league may want to finish the 2019-20 season, there will come a time when it no longer makes sense to do so. The NHL has not reached that point.
"I think everybody’s aware that there will come a time if you get too late in the summer that you might have to [cancel the remainder of the season], but it’s still May," Cotsonika said. "The commissioner made it very clear that they want to play, they want to find a way to finish the season. He believes the fans want that, the players want that and they have flexibility in terms of the schedule. They can play in the summer, they can delay the start of next season while still planning on an 82-game season."
There is virtually no way at this point the NHL could resume the current season and begin the 2020-21 season on time, but that does not mean it has to scrap an 82-game season. There are ways the league can manipulate next season in order to still get 82 games.
"You compress the schedule, you take out the five-day mandatory break, you take out the all-star game and you play an 82-game season and you finish later next year than you want to, but at least you get in a full season if all goes well," Cotsonika said.
The league's plans to resume the season is not causing the same kind of labor tension as in the MLB
The fact that the league wants to both finish this season and hold an 82-game season in 2020-21 with none of the negotiated breaks could potentially be a source of tension between the NHL and NHLPA. We have seen that kind of tension crop up in the MLB where the players are pushing back on aspects of the league's proposal to start the season. In the NHL's case, however, there seems to be no such labor issue.
"The commissioner did talk about that it’s been a very collaborative process," Cotsonika said. "The NHL’s an interesting situation because the CBA, they split revenues 50-50 so they’re in this together. They have aligned goals here as a league and as a union. That’s why they have the return to play committee as well that work hand in hand. Anything the NHL does, they’re consulting with the NHLPA and they’re going back and forth. Now, that doesn’t mean that every single player feels the same way or every single team feels the same way, there’s lots of difference of opinion within those two organizations, but I think at the end of the day they both want to play.
"Everybody here is losing money. Even as the NHL comes back to play without fans, the NHL’s going to lose money, the players are going to lose money. It’s a matter of how much."
Just getting the players back to the United States and Canada remains a major hurdle
Great, so the league wants to resume the season and most of the players seem to want to play so what are the actual hurdles to returning? The first and most obvious, besides the virus itself, is just getting the players back to their respective cities.
"There was an interesting number that Bettman used and he said 17-percent of players are outside of North America right now," Cotsonika said. "So that’s 17-percent of your workforce, your players who would have to come back either to the United States or Canada. There are border issues, there are quarantine issues. And then you have the rest of your players are spread out around North America so if you have players in the States who have to go to Canada and vice-versa you have the same issue. So that’s another issue that they have to work out. You’ve got to bring them over here, they have to quarantine for x-period, you have to get them through the border."
Testing will be one of the major aspects of the NHL's return
The NHL and NBA have been almost in lockstep in their responses to the coronavirus, but one aspect in which the NHL has differed significantly is its stance on testing. When the coronavirus first caused both leagues to halt play, the NBA faced criticism when several teams were able to get tested for the virus despite there being a shortage of tests for ill patients. While NBA teams wanted to be proactive in finding out who had the virus, the NHL instead did not want to be perceived as getting preferential treatment by being tested over those who needed it and elected not to seek tests for any asymptomatic players or personnel.
According to Cotsonika, testing will be vital to the NHL's return to play, but the league still remains very concerned about perception.
"One thing that the commissioner and the deputy commissioner have been very clear on is they’re going to need frequent testing and they cannot do that at the expense of the medical community," Cotsonika said. "They don’t want pro athletes taking tests from people who need them."
The only way to keep the players safe if the season returns is to constantly test, but if there are not enough tests to go around, the NHL understands that this could mean delaying the season even further.
"If they cannot test the people they need to test, they can’t play," Cotsonika said.
The NHL has narrowed down its search of centralized locations and is focusing on NHL cities
The NHL is down to eight or nine possible sites to use as centralized locations for the return of the season. The league is looking at cities that could accommodate 12 teams which, if the NHL goes with a 24-team playoff, would mean only two possible cities are needed. As the NHL continues to narrow its search, however, do not be surprised if the league uses multiple cities as a contingency plan.
"What they’re looking at here is they’re down to eight or nine places where they feel they could have as many as a dozen teams if that makes sense," Cotsonika said. "So if you went with two centralized locations that could have a dozen teams, well then you could have three or four or whatever you decide to have. I think you need some flexibility there because this is a moving target, right? So the coronavirus has been different in different places -- the level of infection, the testing capabilities -- so you have to have some flexibility. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, say city X, it becomes a hotspot and then you’re in trouble. You have to have lots of different contingencies."
So what are the criteria the league is looking for out of a central site?
"I think what you’re looking for is an NHL city that has an NHL arena, not for the seats but for the back of house types of things like the medical facilities, the training facilities, multiple locker rooms because if you’re going to have multiple games a day, you’re going to need to sanitize the dressing room in between," Cotsonika said. "And then you’re going to need a community that has a low rate of infection and has plenty of testing capability."
Earlier in the pause, it was reported that other areas besides NHL cities were being considered such as Connecticut and North Dakota. But, according to Cotsonika, the NHL determined these locations were not logistically realistic.
"It’s amazing what it takes to put on an NHL game," Cotsonika said. "People have no idea behind the scenes all the little things you need. You can’t just have an ice rink, like a sheet of ice and some boards and glass and play. All the little things for instant replay, for medical, it goes on and on, media facilities. ... They looked into it. They did. They crunched the numbers. It didn’t make sense."
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