What NHL needs from teams bidding to host isolated games

Fans across the world are eager for live sports to resume but as Donnovan Bennett explains, it will take the whole planet working together to ensure normalcy returns.

There are between nine and 12 teams bidding to host what are expected to be four National Hockey League playoff “tournaments,” should the league be able to resume its playoffs this summer.

“It’s like bidding on an Olympics,” said one NHL executive, whose team wants to host. “You know you’re bidding against other cities, but you’re not sure who they all are.”

For the cities bidding on becoming one of the host arenas, to be used if the NHL is allowed by health authorities to resume play this summer, it requires a veritable “bid book” the likes of what host committees publish when bidding to host a Pan Am Games or a World Track and Field Championships.

But what makes this bid book more complex is that prospective teams must account for how they will keep anywhere from 600-1,000 people inside a COVID-19 quarantine bubble. How close are hotels? How will you feed people? How far away are the practice rinks?

How much time would be spent on buses, as opposed to walking, where social distance can be maintained?

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Speaking with people around the league, here are a few thoughts on the bid process.

• First off, everyone agrees that the health authorities will call the shots here. And that improved testing ability is a major player.

The NHL is in full preparation mode because, frankly, what else are they supposed to do? If the health authorities do not allow hockey to played this summer, the league will stand down. If the NHL gets the green light however, the planning work they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic will allow the league to be ready right out of the gates.

• Sources say that this is the closest that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr have worked together. A big part of what’s the NHL is trying to figure out is how to get their games back on TV, but how to do so without requiring players to be quarantined away from their families for weeks on end.

Thus far, it does not appear that the NHL can have one without the other.

As Montreal Canadiens centre Phillip Danault said this week, “Some players could be away from their families three to four months, which I think is way too much. And I’m not the only one thinking like that, I’m sure.”

• The league continues to push forward with scenarios that involve regular season games being played. Some scenarios envision teams playing the full 82-game schedule, but more and more that number is 78 or 76 games.

“Why do we need to have teams like Ottawa and Detroit coming back to play games?” one exec asked. Well, those teams have local TV deals that need to be satisfied as well. Those regular season games will be the first to be sacrificed, but remember that this is all about revenues, and even the non-playoff teams have some missed revenues to be concerned over.

• Assuming no regular season games get played, the most popular playoff scenario is the following: The Top 6 teams from each Division meet in one city. They would open with best-of-three series between the No. 1 and 2 seeds (to decide a Division winner), while No. 3 meets 6 and 4 meets 5 for the right to keep playing.

Under this scenario, the only current seventh place team that may feel left out is the New York Rangers. They are one point behind the sixth place Islanders in the Metropolitan Division but the Rangers have played two more games. There are no teams that could say the No. 6 seed had the advantage of playing more games than them, and that they were unfairly treated.

• The criteria to win a bid is largely based on how the city has been affected by COVID-19, which leaves out the teams in New York or New Jersey. The Governor of California has also made it clear he is not in favour of pushing ahead with sports.

In Canada, Edmonton and Winnipeg would be far ahead of everyone else, based on a variety of reasons. Ottawa has had less COVID-19 cases than most major Canadian cities, but lengthy bus trips to the Kanata-based arena are seen as an issue. In Edmonton there are enough hotels within a two-block radius of Rogers Place, as well as a practice rink attached to the complex.

Columbus’ arena district is also considered a model. Bids are considering approaching restaurants near arenas that are currently closed to serve as “inside the bubble” restaurants for NHL personnel.

• Who counts as “NHL personnel?” That’s an excellent question.

One source said that the rink staff — Zamboni drivers etc. — would have to live in hotels for the duration of the tournament. As for media, would they sit high in the stands, entering and exiting the rink in a defined route? Would they get a chance to conduct press conferences post-game?

The rule of thumb is, the closer a person gets to players, the more restrictive their quarantine guidelines will be.

• What if a player has to go to hospital?

There’s no way around this. Any player who leaves “the bubble” to go to a hospital for an injury or whatever — or goes home for the birth of a baby — would be expected to wait out a 14-day quarantine before playing again.

• How late can they go with this plan? It seems to get later all the time.

The NHL is ready to play this out into October if need be, and here is one reason why: No one wants to start the 2020-21 season in a scenario where they can not allow fans in the building. If they’re playing with no fans, “then let’s make it the 2020 playoffs,” one person said.

It sounds like Bill Daly’s long ago pleas not to tread on the integrity of next season has gone by the wayside. If they can conduct the off-season — free agency, etc. — in November, begin play on Dec. 1 with fans in the seats, and play until late July, it sounds like NHL is ready and willing.

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