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The NHL season is over — Now what?

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The bubble worked, the Cup was awarded and the longest draft in modern history is over. What happens next?

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Gary Fails at PR

About a minute before the NHL Entry Draft broadcast began on day one, when all minds were on the top 31 picks, the NHL announced that their “notional” date for the start of the next season was moving from December 1, 2020 to January 1, 2021.

It wasn’t a shock to hear that there would be no more NHL hockey in 2020. I’d assumed that to be true before the playoffs actually started and acted accordingly — I watched a lot of games the way you eat a lot tomatoes in September as the plants start die and the squirrels keep taking them to bury. Winter is coming, and this last bit of summer is to be savoured.

Why the NHL thought the biggest collective moment of self delusion and fantastical prognostications about the future for hockey fans was the time for that announcement, I can’t speculate. But it was fairly heavily ignored for a few days.

AHL Drops Hints

The new Commissioner of the AHL, Scott Howson, has been doing a few podcasts dropping hints that the AHL’s announced December 4 start date is unattainable. Rumours of a March 1 start and a short season have surfaced, but so far they haven’t even taken the step of adopting the January tentative date of the NHL.

Elliotte Friedman Has Some Scoops

In his final 31 Thoughts before the start of training camp, he said:

30. This depends on what happens with the border, but there is talk that Canadian-based NHL teams with U.S.-based AHL affiliates are considering moving them north of the 49th for the 2020–21 season. That’s Calgary/Stockton; Edmonton/Bakersfield; and Vancouver/Utica. It makes sense, because a quarantine period would mean you can’t call up players. Not sure if those teams would be based out of the NHL buildings or centralized, but it is something these three organizations must prepare for.

Trudeau is Keeping the Door Shut

While some provincial levels of government have been eager to approve plans that allow sports to resume, the federal government keeps not helping them much. It was Trudeau who said no the MLB and the Blue Jays, and the most recent statements about the closed-ish US/Canada border indicate they aren’t opening it with the virus rates so high in the US.

Way back, John Shannon had a Scoop

This was immediately denied, and then a recent report from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, who is always across this file, said this:

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr can’t conceive of a full season in the bubble for 2020-21. “Nobody is going to do that for four months or six months or something like that,” he told The Associated Press this week.

But a short-term bubble? Or a bubble with a more porous membrane?

“Whether we could create some protected environments that people would be tested and they’d be clean when they came in and lasted for some substantially shorter period of time with people cycling in and out, is one of the things I suspect we will examine,” Fehr said.

And that sounds a lot like this that ESPN reported on earlier:

Those team executives also believed that next season could start back in the bubble. One plan being contemplated in hockey circles would have regional bubbles, with geographically localized teams competing against one another. The chatter was loud in the Edmonton bubble about an “all-Canadian Division” idea that might be necessary because of the U.S./Canada border issue. The advantage for the NHL in this plan? A chance to get the season going, before eventually returning to local arenas with fans in attendance; and starting the season with rivals facing each other, which has always been the easiest sell for the NHL.

Along with those bubbles, as Fehr indicated, there’s also talk that teams would spend some time in the bubble and then some time outside of it, so they’re not cut off from loved ones and friends again.

All of which sounds like what Shannon was talking about.

Bill Foley Let the Cat Out of the Bag

Bettman Again

In his “State of the NHL” address at the opening of the final round of the playoffs — after he’d come out of 14-day isolation in Edmonton — Gary Bettman said a lot of things about flexible plans, and he emphasized that how the season starts won’t necessarily be how it ends. Meaning that they might begin in quasi-bubbles with no fans and no international travel and they might end up with something like normalcy with an interim step of partially filled arenas.

They Have to End Up in July

A hard deadline looms over any plans for a 2021 season. The Tokyo Olympics are set to begin on July 23, 2021. NBC is the broadcaster in America and the exclusive rights holder for nationally televised NHL games in America. They cannot broadcast a hockey playoffs and the Olympics at the same time. The NHL can’t run long.

The accelerated 2020 playoffs ran from August 11 to September 28, with only one more possible game, the whole thing was going to be done in 50 days at most. That feat requires a bubble with no travel days and no arena availability problems unless the NHL and the NHLPA agree on something they couldn’t this time around.

The NHL wanted best-of-five series for all rounds, or all the early rounds, and the NHLPA said no. If they did that in 2021, they could plausibly get in another 60-day playoff with 16 teams and no preliminary or qualifying round.

That makes the last reasonable date to be playing the regular season May 15, with May 1 a lot easier to do.

More Friedman (and more Bill Foley)

Bettman announced at the draft that Jan. 1 is the new “target” for the start of the 2020–21 season. A few sources I’ve spoken to think Jan. 15 is a possibility. Vegas owner Bill Foley told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen he believes Feb. 1 is a more realistic goal, with a 48- or 56-game season. Foley added that T-Mobile Arena needs 40 per cent capacity “to be economically” viable.

This is going to be like herding cats because the challenges from market to market are going to be different. Some teams will care more about playing this year than others. Some teams will be able to have more fans than others. Bettman will want to play enough games to end the current U.S. TV deal and start the next one. The NHL and NHLPA have begun discussions on next season, but I think the challenges of preparing for the bubble will pale in comparison to those of preparing for next year. I do not envy this task.

They couldn’t get this together for December 1, no matter the state of our pandemic-riddled world, because that’s not enough time to negotiate through all this. There is a new player committee at work with the NHL right now on all of this. They might have concepts that are being leaked, but they have no firm plans yet.

Pick a Number

But pick a 50-game season, the number bandied about by the AHL Commissioner, and see how that works. NHL teams play about 15 games a month in a normal season with a break at Christmas, a break at the All-Star game and bye week. If you skip all the breaks and condense the schedule a very small amount by travelling less and having more single-location back-to-backs, you can play 50 games in three and half months, and you can start the NHL season on February 1 as your more-or-less last call to get in a real season and playoffs.

The AHL doesn’t have that same hard end date, and they could start later, finish later, and the call-up system would run decently smoothly. As long as you’re cool with teams like the Utica Comets being put out of business, maybe permanently, as they get moved into temporary Canadian homes that would seem destined to become permanent. There will be business casualties to any plan, however, and teams that will simply balk at playing with no revenue stream.

The ECHL has an ambitious return-to-play plan for a season to begin in some of the USA’s biggest Coronavirus hotspots in mid-December. They don’t seem to live in the same world as the NHL, and there doesn’t seem to be any realistic path for the Newfoundland Growlers to be playing by mid-January — the start date for the rest of the ECHL who couldn’t be brought in on the December adventure in denial.

It is possible to play an all-Canada NHL division for the start of the season with each team playing the others four times. That’s 24 games each, and that would be nearly half the season done before anyone has to cross a border, pushing that requirement to April or so. You could do it all season if you had to.

It’s a sketch of a possibility of a potential plan that could be made to work by pouring out money to smooth some of the bumps in the road. But it’s hardly a sure thing. It would likely not turn a profit. But it might, theoretically, bring in enough revenue to prevent the necessity of lowering the salary cap in 2021-2022.

What if the Players Just Say No?

I don’t doubt there’s a contingent of them who want this season cancelled, and a resumption scheduled for September 2021, and it may come to that.

The players don’t want bubbles of any kind, and the owners don’t want zeros in their revenue accounts for 12 more months. That impasse is going to have to be broken open, and the thing that will decide it is this: no games, no pay. If the players want to wait until September, their entire season’s salary is gone. And not everyone just signed a Pandemic Camel Contract with the least salary possible in the 2020-2021 year and extra loaded on in years we all hope will be better.

At some point the NHLPA may well be asked to vote on some concept of returning to play that carries with it a greater risk of catching this virus for all players. And the alternative is skipping a year’s pay. No matter how you dress it up, that’s the choice. There will be infected players when play resumes outside of bubbles. There’s no way to truly prevent that.

Even if the players do agree to this sketchy sketched-out plan, their SPCs contain language that would prorate their salaries down by the number of games actually scheduled. And to override that, they’d need the NHL teams to agree to pay out full salaries when they won’t get anything like full revenue. The escrow debt would balloon, the teams’ real debts will balloon, and what seemed like a bad financial situation before could be worse — even if they do play. But what if the owners have to agree to full salary to get the players to say yes?

The path through the forest that comes out where we used to be doesn’t seem to exist.

What about us, though, the fans?

Now we wait, because if training camp even starts before the New Year, we should count ourselves lucky.