The AHL has moved their anticipated start date for their next season to December:
At the recommendation of the AHL’s Return to Play Task Force, the Board of Governors has approved moving the anticipated start of the 2020-21 regular season to December 4, 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis. The AHL will continue to work with its member clubs to monitor developments and local guidelines in all 31 league cities.
Further details regarding the 2020-21 American Hockey League schedule are still to be determined.
They’ve chosen to align with the NHL’s speculative date contained in the 2020 CBA Memo of Understanding, and go with early December.
The elephant in the room is that those dates for both leagues might be hopelessly optimistic.
"There's no guarantee that we will be playing hockey."— Tony Androckitis (@TonyAndrock) July 30, 2020
Crunch owner Howard Dolgon expressing concerns about playing at 50% capacity.
The idea that the AHL will play to half-capacity crowds has been rumoured to be part of this plan, but has not been confirmed. That makes it all seem even less likely.
The NHL has not negotiated any protocols on the 2020-2021 season with the NHLPA, and will have to do that after the Stanley Cup is awarded in October and free agency begins on November 1, if all goes well for their playoffs.
The problem they, and by extension the AHL, will face in early November — three months from now — is that the United States cannot have the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths under control by then.
On June 9, 2020, the rolling average of daily cases of COVID-19 in America dipped below 20,000. Ten days later the average daily case count was 24,347. On that day, the Canadian government denied MLB the right to cross the border to play baseball in Toronto. The MLB plan involved a kind of group isolation for the incoming teams who would arrive on a private plane, not move through the normal airport terminals, bus to the hotel next to the stadium and not interact with anyone but themselves until they hit the field. No one now is likely to think the government denial was a bad decision.
The average daily case count in the United States in now over 63,000, and it’s not clear if enough states have reined in the growth in positive tests to have that even level off, far less fall. From the previous peak in early April of over 30,000 cases per day, it took two months to get to that low point that wasn’t good enough for Canada’s federal government. They can’t get to even that point again in three months. Or four, or who knows how many it will take to reach a point when the border is either open or the Canadian government will make exceptions for sports that don’t involve quarantined hubs.
AHL teams cannot come into this country in private jets and use a quasi-isolation system while here. Something has to change from the facts we live with now for this AHL start date to be possible, and even a best-case scenario of vaccine development would not get things going that fast. The AHL has 31 teams now, and over a dozen of them are privately owned unaffiliated teams, unlike the Toronto Marlies, who are owned by MLSE. Those teams cannot operate without ticket sales, and the rest of the AHL can’t either without a heavy commitment by the NHL teams to subsidize their operations. So beyond an open border, they need to be able to have some fans in the stands.
It’s very difficult to see how the AHL can have a season at all as a full league. It’s possible to imagine the Canadian-based teams playing at some point, but there are only four of them.
It’s very difficult to imagine another NHL hockey game played in 2020 after the Stanley Cup is awarded in Edmonton.
The decisions teams, agents and players have to make is what will they do between now and ... whenever. Because even a December start means a layoff of eight months for hundreds of players on NHL contracts who play in the AHL, and the AHL-contracted players who fill out the rosters.
We’ve already seen a slow march of players, European and North American, to European leagues. Pontus Aberg, still an RFA with arbitration rights and a possible new Leafs contract, is leaving for the KHL. He won’t be the last, and the Leafs have seven European players who were fulltime AHLers this year (not counting Timothy Liljegren), under contract next year. One of those is Egor Korshkov, who is believed to already be on loan to the KHL. Two other interesting names are Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and Mikhail Abramov. They can wait for Canadian junior hockey to start up — if it even can — or the Leafs can find them something that starts now, not months form now.
But all of that is just contingency planning around this December date, which seems fantastical to me, both for the AHL and the NHL. I think this playoffs is the NHL’s last hurrah until the United States of America stops the uncontrolled exponential spread of this virus that is leading to the deaths of over 1,000 people every day.
And if that’s true, much more creative solutions that loans to European clubs will need to be found for the prospects of NHL teams. What those might be are purely speculative, but for now, these December start dates for both leagues seem impossible to achieve even with the most optimistic of outlooks.
Let’s have the last hurrah, and then we’ll see if any sort of hockey in December is really possible.