The NHL’s 31 general managers convened in the same room for a series of meetings the week before the pandemic forced the league into a lengthy pause last March, but there was no warning about what was to come.
In fact, COVID-19 was only brought up once during those sessions and it was done so in the context of how it might impact the availability of sticks produced in China.
Days later, the league’s Board of Governors was voting to suspend the season and its top decision-makers have been navigating a dizzying series of decisions and difficulties ever since.
“It’s almost hard to believe we’ve all been at this for a year and we’re still not done,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters Thursday. “We have had to live this day to day. We have 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, so we never really had an opportunity to say, ‘Boy, this is taking a long time.’
“We were dealing with the here and now.”
They are now seeing fans trickle slowly back into 17 buildings and hearing about players getting vaccinated. They can start to imagine making money again.
And, as the league looks ahead to the brighter days on the horizon, it’s telling how much of its ambition is tied to restoring the comfort of what it once knew.
Bettman basically confirmed that the North Division will be a one-and-done experiment, saying that he envisioned a return to the previous alignment setup on the other side of the pandemic. That could happen as soon as next season, provided the Canadian government loosens border restrictions by the fall.
The NHL needs to be extra sensitive to the desires of its customers right now, and polling suggested that fans liked the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific Divisions as previously constructed.
“What we’re finding is two-thirds of our fans enjoyed what we did this year and about two-thirds of the fans think we should go back to what we have had more traditionally,” said Bettman. “And I think that’s about right. I think fans were very understanding and even excited in some respects about what we had to do in this unique season, but I think our traditional alignment makes more sense and is more widely accepted.”
It’s hard to identify any clear innovations brought on by the chaos of this disruptive year, beyond maybe the ads sold on player helmets that will outlast COVID-19.
Bettman could see more divisional play included in the schedule matrix moving forward — “It’s been kind of fun and intense and competitive,” he said — but he wouldn’t commit to continuing the two- and three-game series currently dotting the calendar, despite acknowledging their benefits.
The accompanying reduction in travel saves money and lowers the wear-and-tear on players, but may not be best for the paying customers.
“If a player is unavailable when a team comes into a market for its visits because of an injury or something, then the opportunity for those fans to see that player has been diminished,” said Bettman. “So there’s an ebb and flow and a yin and yang to everything you have to do, but there have been some real pluses competitively as to what we’ve seen this year and the travel issue is important and not insignificant.”
The marquee events in this season largely played in empty arenas were unquestionably the two games played outdoors in picturesque Lake Tahoe last month. Those delivered unbelievable scenes and produced strong ratings despite encountering logistical delays, but they shouldn’t be considered a hint of what’s to come, either.
“As beautiful as the setting was and the fact that Sunday night’s game I think was the most viewed game on NBC Sports Network ever, our game is about the fans,” said Bettman. “And as interesting, as beautiful, as intriguing as the setting was, I think our focus when we can will go back to having fans at the outdoor games in record numbers, which is what we’ve traditionally done.”
Restoring the business is the top priority in a hard-cap system where the players have collectively racked up a large debt to team owners. That was contemplated in the extension to the collective bargaining agreement reached in July and will likely see the salary cap stay flat across several seasons despite the windfall from the new U.S. media rights deals and pending addition of the Seattle Kraken.
In the shorter term, the focus is on navigating the vaccine rollout and getting more fans in seats. They must also figure out 2022 Olympic participation and how this summer’s playoffs are contested, particularly come the third round when the North Division champion may need to be relocated to an American city depending on travel restrictions.
Discussions with the federal government have already started.
“We’re engaged, they’re engaged,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “And we’ll get an answer when we get an answer.”
They’ve been nimble throughout a year unlike any we’ll probably see again in our lifetimes, and remain focused on getting back to the future.
“Obviously the key for us, at some point in time, for normalcy is … having fans in our buildings and being able to host fans in our buildings,” said Daly. “Not in limited numbers, but in large numbers. The world keeps changing and we’ll change with it.
“Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later.”