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NHL contingency planning for a resumption of the 2019-2020 season

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The AHL, ECHL and CHL are in a very different boat, however.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Seven
The Leafs in the shortened lockout-year playoffs on May 13.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Thursday’s Insider Trading is awash with news:

After the NHL set up what Gary Bettman called a trial balloon over having the draft in June before a potential resumption of the season, the response hasn’t been all that positive, as reported by Pierre LeBrun. One team, one that doesn’t need to personally care about draft order, is on side, though:

Shanahan was one of many NHL people out speaking to some of these issues on Thursday. There were some players quoted discussing the overall concept of a resumption of play in what looked like a coordinated media blitz.

The idea of resuming the season this summer is something anyone can sit down with a calendar and work out for themselves. I did that Thursday morning, and I didn’t start with the “pie in the sky” timing that Insider Trading reports some team and league sources are considering — a May 15 date (also reported by the New York Post). I started mine a whole month later with the idea that by June 14, players could converge on their “home sites” and beginning either an isolation period of two weeks, or a training camp combined with isolation depending on the rules in place at that time for sizes of gatherings and incoming travellers.

My plan had a full regular season using the NHL’s theorized four divisional locations. That would require a reset of the schedule of who plays whom, but the idea is to get everyone to 82 games played, not necessarily re-create the existing schedule. Of note, LeBrun says the NHL is currently considering 12 cities, and is actively vetting them to pick four locations from.

Once the regular season is done, the playoffs can happen in a revised format in the four locations and my guestimate, depending on format, was the Stanley Cup could be awarded sometime in early September. You can shorten this timeline by playing less regular season games, shorter playoff rounds, or having fewer days off.

The NHL’s concept — which is just that, and not a schedule they know they can pull off — sounds basically what I thought up. The 2020-2021 season would start close to on time, and there is enough days after the Cup is lifted in an empty arena to fit in all the free agency, player trades and RFA business needed.

If it can be done safely, there’s time to do it.

But then what happens?

The word out of Germany today was that the Bundesliga will resume in early May if they get the final go-ahead from the government, but they are preparing to play in empty stadiums for a long time, perhaps into next year. Part of their motivation to play, even if they have to have no ticket sales, is that they have clubs facing insolvency. For a TV event like German football or the NHL, there is a financial motive to play if it’s safe. For ticket-driven leagues, the picture is more bleak.

As Bob McKenzie outlines, the CHL is considering a host of options, and has planned to have the Memorial Cup next year in June to allow for the OHL, WHL and QMJHL to start late, possibly as late as January. There is no bankroll to keep those teams going without ticket sales, and it’s not like they can cut player salaries to save money. Even for leagues where some teams have owners with deep pockets (the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, for example) the league as a whole hasn’t got enough money behind it to successfully play to empty rinks long term.

Approximately half of the AHL teams are independently owned, or owned in a partnership with NHL affiliates. While NHL teams want their prospects to play, the only way the NHL could go on if tickets can’t be sold is if the NHL collectively pays for it. They might. They could do it simply because most of the players are getting paid on NHL contracts anyway, so they might as well, but what about the ECHL? The NHL doesn’t need them, and the affiliated teams are not owned by the NHL teams. Most ECHL teams run on a budget that could see them insolvent as soon as the seasons tickets for next year don’t go on sale in a few weeks.

The professional minor-league sports model in North America is about to face a huge test, and some teams and entire leagues might not make it out the other side. Even the NHL and the wealthiest teams can’t float along forever with no revenue, and not all NHL teams are floating now. A TV-only NHL is ... well it’s like living on EI instead of your old salary. It beats the alternative, but it sure puts a crimp in your spending.

No one knows when the fans will return to sports stadiums. No one knows when the athletes will return to play to empty seats, but the NHL is trying very hard to be ready the second it becomes possible to try to resume the season. A lot of livelihoods depend on it, and a lot of lives depend on it being safe. What matters is that every member of the janitorial staff right up to Connor McDavid are all safe, paid and happy to do their jobs. If that can happen, then the show will go on on a date to be named later.