NHL Mulls Playoff Bubble After Surviving COVID Crisis

By mid-February, the National Hockey League had actually reached a crisis point in its currently abbreviated 56-game season. 5 groups were down due to the fact that of the coronavirus, and Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Costs Daly understood there needed to be an extreme tightening up of procedures governing the gamers or the season would remain in jeopardy.

This all came simply except a year after the league needed to close down for what ended up being 4 months, signing up with Big league Baseball and the National Basketball Association. The suspicious anniversary of that date is Friday.

“There was no doubt we had a very difficult couple of weeks with the amount of positive tests coming back,” Daly stated throughout Thursday’s joint media teleconference with Bettman. “What we’ve confirmed through this process is that we’re dealing with a very contagious virus, easily transmissible if people aren’t taking appropriate precautions.”

In reaction, the league and NHL Players Association accepted a variety of procedure modifications, which have actually changed the course of the season. However the most oppressive have actually been the most efficient, as gamers, coaches and personnel were informed to develop private bubbles in the house. They have actually been ordered to “stay at home,” limiting them to arenas, practice facilities and their homes.

“We had protocols that we issued prior to the start of the season that basically required a quarantine when you’re on the road, but didn’t have the same strict restrictions when players are in the home market,” Daly said. “Now, [effective Feb. 11], they couldn’t run errands, they couldn’t pick up kids from school, no social interactions.”

It seems to have worked because no teams have been barred by COVID from practicing or playing since then, putting the season back on track. And Bettman said positive tests among player and on-ice coaches, trainers and managers has plummeted.

On Feb. 12, he noted, there were 59 gamers on the NHL COVID restricted list, but as of Wednesday there were four.

“It’s not necessarily a handful of positives,” Daly added. “It’s when you’re in a situation where there’s been an outbreak on a particular team.”

All of the league’s 31 teams currently are playing.

“We have had to live this day-to-day,” Bettman said. “We’ve had to react to things on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s positive tests, whether it’s contact tracing, whether it’s postponing games and then rescheduling them.”

There’s also the specter of vaccinations, and Daly said he believes some players have actually already taken them while greater compliance will be negotiated with the union.

“At some point we’ll get into a position where I would think and I would hope that there’s widespread vaccination,” Daly stated.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t troubled times ahead and decisions that have actually to be made on the fly. When the NHL returned to play last July, it was in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. In the latter, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in six games over the Dallas Stars by the end of September.

Because of restrictions still in place at the U.S.-Canadian border, Bettman couldn’t preclude the use of a bubble again—this time in the U.S.—for later rounds of the playoffs, if teams are still not able to travel unencumbered back and forth between the countries.

This season, the NHL split into four divisions by necessity with the seven Canadian teams playing only against each other in the Scotia North. People traveling into certain parts of Canada still must quarantine for 14 days before integrating with the community, thus precluding a traditional back-and-forth, seven-game playoff series.

None of those Canadian teams are among the eight that have had to halt play this season due to the fact that of an outbreak.

“We’ll deal with whatever the situation is from a pandemic standpoint and whatever government regulations are,” Bettman said. “I suppose it is conceivable to quasi-bubble if we’re going to play the conference finals and there’s a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Final. But again, we’ll do whatever we need to do that’s safe from a medical standpoint.

“So, we don’t have bubble plans right now. But if we do, we’d develop them in a heartbeat as we did over the summer.”

As far as returning in the fall to to the pattern of a normal season, running from October to June, Bettman said right now that’s still the plan. The New York Islanders and expansion Seattle Kraken are opening new buildings next season with the hope of having a full contingent of fans in the stands. That’s still to be determined.

Right now, 10 groups are playing in front of very limited crowds. The season opened in January with fans attending games at about 10-20% in only three buildings.

“We’re hopeful, we’re planning, we’re optimistic, and we believe that we should be able to start next season on time,” Bettman said.

This season hasn’t been all about putting out COVID brush fires. Bettman said the teams have actually been able to retain about $100 million in advertising revenue by doing things like selling naming rights to each division, developing virtual on-ice signage, and putting a sponsorship decal on player helmets.

“I think it’s more likely than not we’ll continue to see those,” Bettman stated about the helmet ads. “It doesn’t mean we’re on a slippery slope. These are tough economic times, and we have to utilize the avenues we’re presented.”

The league also just consummated a new, 10-year television deal with Disney. Good things can even happen during tough times.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve all been at this for a year, and we’re still not done,” Bettman said. “Yes, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but also this isn’t a time to let our guard down or reduce our vigilance. In some respects, the year has gone in the blink of an eye. And in other respects it has seems like forever.”

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