The end of the hockey season is always disappointing (except in 2018), but the Capitals’ first-round exit to the New York Islanders was particularly disappointing considering we just don’t know when we will see the team play again.
I’ll admit it, when the season was paused in March I did not know if there would be a postseason, but I had no doubt we would see everything return back to normal for the start of the next season with an October start, an 82-game schedule and fans in the stands. Now, I am writing this while watching playoff hockey from my home in September being played in an empty arena. Life comes at you fast.
The point is that the NHL is going to have to adjust the 2020-21 season because of the continued coronavirus pandemic and no one is quite sure exactly what it will look like.
An article published on ESPN on Tuesday did a thorough job detailing the myriad of issues and unanswered questions facing the league in terms of next season. While the NHL would have you believe it is prepared and working towards an 82-game season set to begin in December, that seems to be a very hopeful and probably unrealistic projection.
While the health and safety of the players remains paramount, the financial implications of COVID-19 cannot be ignored. To boil it down to the most simplistic explanation possible, the NHL is a gate-driven league and we still don’t know when fans will be able to return to arenas. It makes a certain amount of sense for the league to delay next season as long as possible to allow for more fans to return for more games. At the same time, the NHL cannot just shutter its doors until a vaccine becomes widely available. The players want to play (and get paid), fans still want to watch hockey and the league does not want the sport to become out of sight, out of mind.
There’s also a question of what will the season look like when it does return? The playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton have been a great success for the league, but the bubble is probably not a realistic way to run a regular season. The playoffs were for a limited number of teams and a limited number of games. Maintaining a bubble is not cheap and, financially speaking, it probably does not make sense to have some sort of bubble format for an entire regular season.
Having said that, seeing how badly MLB has handled its regular season should serve as a blueprint on how not to handle playing during the pandemic. The MLB is not playing in a bubble and games getting postponed due to positive coronavirus tests has become a regular occurrence.
For 2020-21, here’s what we know. A Dec. 1 start date seems ambitious as does the league’s insistence of having an 82-game season. The NHL has said it is going to get rid of the all-star game and bye week to make up for the push back in the season, but that’s two weeks to make up for at the least a two-month delay. There’s no law that says the NHL season has to start or end at a certain time, as this season certainly illustrates, but it does not behoove the NHL to set up its calendar for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to finish during football season which dominates the American sports landscape. The season cannot be reaching its climax at a time when interest in the sport will be at its lowest.
So enjoy the playoffs hockey fans, because no one is quite sure when hockey will be back or exactly what it’s going to look like when it returns. It certainly seems like it is going to be a while before you will be able to “Rock the Red” again at Capital One Arena.