Not even by expanding the Stanley Cup playoffs from 16 teams to 24 could the Kings qualify for postseason play, but the drama of playoff hockey still could unfold at Staples Center this summer.
Commissioner Gary Bettman last week identified Los Angeles as one of 10 finalists to be designated a “hub” city for the NHL’s revamped postseason tournament, a surprise on several levels.
Los Angeles County has been a coronavirus hotspot, with more than 56,000 confirmed cases and nearly 2,400 deaths as of Tuesday morning, and Staples Center got some unwanted publicity when it emerged that all eight NHL players known to have tested positive for COVID-19 played there shortly before Bettman paused the season March 12.
Also, the Kings’ stumbles this season had dampened local hockey interest and led fans to focus on next season.
L.A. made the cut, anyway, as did Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver. The selection of two cities — one to host Eastern Conference games and one to host Western Conference games — is about three weeks away, a delay built in to give the NHL and players time to make decisions based on conditions prevailing close to when they hope to play.
The sites would be used starting in late July or early August. At least initially, fans won’t be allowed into the arenas. And whether it happens at all will depend on guidance from local, state and federal health officials in the U.S. and Canada.
L.A.’s bid is a longshot. It’s also a symbol of hope. “Sports are not the most important thing that is happening in the world right now, but everybody is looking to sports for emotional support and emotional relief,” said Kathryn Schloessman, president of the Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission. “Even without fans, we’d be making big steps to get back to normal.”
The NHL, the first major professional sports league in North America to announce specific steps toward resuming competition, remains in Phase 1 (self-isolation) of its Return to Play Plan. It hopes to advance to Phase 2 (small group workouts at team facilities) this week. Phase 3 would begin with training camps opening sometime after July 10. The length is still being negotiated by the league and the NHL Players’ Assn.
The bid city requirements are challenging. Each must be able to stage three games per day in a main rink and provide four nearby sheets of practice ice. Each also must have about 700 hotel rooms to house 12 teams’ players, coaches, officials and support staff.
In addition, COVID-19 testing must be available without shortchanging public needs. Bettman estimated 25,000-30,000 tests will be needed because players will be tested nightly. Players and staffers will be kept together and away from non-essential personnel as much as possible.
One positive test in a two-month tournament wouldn’t necessarily trigger a shutdown, Bettman said, but an outbreak could take the decision out of his hands. “If we go to a place where there’s less COVID-19 in the community, the likelihood of somebody who’s now been tested through a training period, through training camp and now is centralized, the more we can sort of create a bubble, the less likely we’ll have it,” Bettman said.
L.A., which has begun relaxing restrictions on businesses and restaurants, can create a bubble-like environment because Staples Center is across the street from the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels, which combined have more than 1,000 rooms. There are tunnels that connect the hotels, the Microsoft Theater and the arena to minimize participants’ exposure to the public.
“Literally, if you wanted to encapsulate the players and the personnel that need to be assembled to put on games at Staples Center, you couldn’t pick a better location because nobody’s driving anywhere. They’re walking,” Schloessman said. “And it’s a nice place too. You’re not putting them in some dark, dank cave someplace. They’re at a beautiful hotel, either the JW or the Ritz, right in the middle of downtown L.A. So I think it works out really well as a location to do what they’re trying to do for a fan-less event for this situation.”
No fans means no ushers, ticket takers or concession workers at Staples Center and no economic boost for restaurants and bars in the area that have suffered because of pandemic-related closures. But increased hotel occupancy could create jobs in housekeeping, food services and other areas, and Staples Center would need dozens of maintenance workers, security personnel and food service workers.
Schloessman sees another potential positive. “The economic impact, because if the players don’t play here, they don’t pay here. So it’s the jock tax,” she said of the state tax imposed on visiting athletes for the time they work in California. “If they’re not playing here, we’re not getting that money. And we need that money to help with all the city services and stuff.”
From the players' side, the prospect of paying more in jock tax could deter them from choosing L.A., wiping out those potential benefits.
Staples Center’s bid has other merits. The hotels, arena and LA Live complex, which offers dining and entertainment options, are owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), creating a central source for troubleshooting and decision making. In addition, the arena has hosted countless major events such as the Stanley Cup Final, NBA Finals and Grammy Awards. It often stages doubleheaders, and staffers are accustomed to quick cleanups and turnarounds.
One key drawback is the lack of a nearby practice rink. The Kings (and sometimes visiting teams) practice at the Toyota Sports Performance Center in El Segundo, which has three ice sheets (one smaller than NHL size) and a decent amount of locker rooms.
Additional practice sheets could come from L.A. Kings Pickwick Ice in Burbank, but traffic has picked up since the early stage of the COVID-19 shutdown, potentially turning trips to El Segundo or Burbank into lengthy treks. The traffic factor also makes it unlikely the bid would extend to using Honda Center in Anaheim or the Ducks’ four-sheet practice facility in Irvine.
Staples Center and the Kings were among the Los Angeles venues and teams who on Friday gave L.A. County supervisors a phased reopening plan that detailed health and safety procedures to be used at sports training facilities and venues. “We’re trying to get the message out there that we’re open for business,” Schloessman said.
It’s now up to the NHL to respond.
Times staff writer Jack Harris contributed to this report.