With the Omicron variant tearing through the sports world, the NHL has had to adapt by postponing some games while playing others in front of, in some cases, a maximum of 1,000 fans in Canada. So why are some games being played in Canada and others are not?
As with everything these days, it’s complicated.
TV rights holders, including Sportsnet in Canada, are partially driving those decisions. But not entirely.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, had to have their Jan. 3 game with Carolina postponed, but intended on holding their Jan. 1 game vs. the Senators and their Jan. 5 game against the Oilers, partially to placate Sportsnet.
But, according to reporting by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, when the province of Ontario announced new restrictions for public gatherings that limited crowds to 1,000 fans or less, the league offered the Leafs the option of postponing the two upcoming games.
The Leafs wanted to go through with the games, Friedman said, because they hadn’t played a game since Dec. 14, they wanted their players to play, and they wanted to get ahead of having wear-and-tear down the road if they played too many games later in the schedule.
As other games are being considered for postponement, including two upcoming Vancouver Canucks games, the league has to weigh the preference of the teams and the broadcast partners.
“We’re a business too, we tried to protect Saturday and Wednesday,” Friedman said on The FAN Morning Show on Friday, referring to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ upcoming schedule. “I’m sure they wanted to protect Hometown Hockey, I have no doubt, but you’re not going to win every battle. And it sounds like one of the reasons they’re playing these games, if not the major reason, was (Sportsnet) asked to see how many of these games we could protect for our windows. And so that’s why it is.”
Friedman added that he was told that a night in Toronto is worth about $3.5 million in terms of hockey-related revenue. With Ontario capping events at 1,000 fans and no concessions sales, it severely limits that revenue.
“So that’s two games they’re going to play with nobody there,” Friedman said, referring to upcoming games with the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. “So, that gives you an idea.
“It’s a big deal. There’s no question about it. Now we’re going to wait and see what they’re going to do in terms of adjusting the schedule and making up those games.”
Making up those games, with the NHL now not participating in the Olympics, becomes a more complicated issue than it appears.
“I think they do this until the Olympic schedule and then they’ve got to go,” Friedman told JD Bunkis, Blake Murphy and Ailish Forfar. “Everything I’ve heard is they’re not going to add time to the end of the season. They’re going to try to avoid that as much as they can. The season ends April 29, they want next season to begin on time. I don’t think they have any desire to push it back and I think they’re going to do everything they can to avoid that.
“It sounds like they feel pretty confident they can fill up a lot of the schedule during the Olympic break. But it’s a moving target. It depends on what happens over the next few weeks. How many more games are we going to need to postpone and move back?
“But it looks like everyone involved here is going to try things to see what works. When I saw the reaction online the other day to the Raptors having 10,000 fans there, I sat here and said, I could see both the province and the teams saying, ‘we’re not going to deal with this pushback, we’re going to bring it down right away.'”
The provincial restrictions on public gatherings are stricter than regulations in the United States, putting extra pressure on the Canadian teams to hold games, one way or the other.
“If in fact these attendance restrictions carry on for multiple weeks, there’s no way we can make up all those games or move or shift all those games,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic. “Like everything else, it’ll be a balancing act. As I said, the league and the other league partners are willing to be as cooperative as we can possibly be.”
As difficult as it is to predict how the variant — or future variants — will affect the schedule, Friedman said he understands what the NHL is trying to do.
“They’re looking at this like it’s going to blow through the world right now, and everybody’s kind of looking at it,” he said. “What does that mean? I think they’re looking at it like short-term pain, long-term gain. We’ll take our hits now.
“And the hope is, you’re reading all this stuff, and it’s interpreted different ways, maybe the thing that happens out of Omicron is that we get our herd immunity. Or, everybody gets infected and then maybe it’s the end of the worst stage of the pandemic. I think they’re kind of looking at it like, we take our hits right now, and maybe what we get is in February, March and April, we get a lot of big games.
“I look at the people running these leagues, Bettman, Silver and Goodell, and there are no good choices. … So no matter what you do, no matter what Bettman does or Silver does or Goodell does, or anybody else in a position of leadership, no matter what you do, people are going to go online and drag you. You’ll get some support, but that’s just life. The decisions these people are making–– there’s no perfect decision you can make. Whatever you do, it’s flawed. Even if you have the best intentions, there are flaws.
“One thing we’ve learned right now: you plan, God laughs. You think you have a good plan, and COVID comes up with a new variant that drives everybody crazy. To me it makes sense, but we’ll see what happens. I understand what they’re trying to do.”