NHL's path to restart was safe, smooth and completely out of character

·7 min read
EDMONTON, ALBERTA - JULY 30: linesman Pierre Racicot #65 tosses out the puck for a face off between Nick Schmaltz #8 of the Arizona Coyotes and Tomas Nosek #92 of the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period of the exhibition game prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on July 30, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Hand it to the NHL: they handled their return-to-play strategy to near perfection. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

TORONTO — For a while now, one major criticism of the NHL has been an inability to think for itself — or at least so it often seems. Rarely making the sort of decisions that might fly in the face of convention, conservatism is the league’s hallmark, while progressiveness has been left to those who tend to dominate the headlines in the North American professional sports space.

This is unquestionably an issue, sure. But at the same time not a terribly poor way to run a reasonably successful business. The NHL sits back, keeping tabs on what works and what doesn’t in other areas of the industry to pick and choose for itself, and with that approach the league safely maintains its steady and incremental build within the category of niche.

Again, this is mostly fine. Not everyone can be a leader in their field.

It’s for this reason that it only seemed natural that the NHL once again took its cues from basketball, almost obediently shutting its doors once NBA commissioner Adam Silver determined that competition could not continue once the coronavirus first infiltrated the sports world.

All we have learned in the time since suggests it’s not the best example in retrospect, but the reflexiveness with which the NHL shut things down was more evidence to suggest there are worse strategies than following the industry kings. What the NBA does, well, is usually the right call. And being able to recognize that quick enough, the NHL prevented a Rudy Gobert situation from materializing in one of its own facilities, or seeing a team doctor have to sprint out onto to the ice to prevent a puck from being dropped.

This is also the reason hockey fans only naturally looked toward basketball early on in the quarantine process, and when strategies and considerations around the returns to competitions were first being talked about.

Then something strange started to happen: the NHL began to chart its own unique course.

Now weeks and months later, and after checking more than 1,200 players and staff members into the hotels and hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton at the beginning of this week without a single positive COVID-19 test collected, there’s reason to believe that the league that normally takes its cues did it better than its peers.

It is far too early to congratulate the NHL or chalk up anything as a success for Gary Bettman, but when we do look back on this unprecedented moment in sports history, leagues and commissioners will be graded above all else on the health and safety of the players, staffers, and citizens in the regions where schedules will resume.

Everyone is hoping the NBA will prove that staging competition in a vacuum-sealed bubble will work wherever it is located — and they will have to while being holed up in the coronavirus-stricken state of Florida for two months. But it’s still hard to argue that any league showed a more intelligent and conscious approach than the NHL when choosing the location for its restart.

Last to settle on their location, and in the end leaving it to the players to decide, the NHL showed tremendous foresight by waiting as long as possible to establish its hub cities, as to allow the public-health scenarios in all the considered regions to play out. In the end, and surely against the interests of partners and sponsors, the NHL and NHLPA membership saw the benefit of choosing two rinks and the surrounding hotels of cities north of the border, turning down the infrastructure, amenities and interest in areas like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago.

For the simple fact that Canada has handled this pandemic far better than the United States, this was the right and most important call made. With the rate of infection being far less severe in Ontario and Alberta, dangers that exist outside the NHL’s secure zones appear lesser than when compared to other restarts.

What’s also clear is that decisions, despite the delay, haven’t come at the expense of accommodations — at least not to a noticeable degree. Overall, the players seem satisfied with their rooms, the food, and the wide range of activities available after almost a week inside the bubble. And why not? We’ve seen players killing time on the turf of a world-class soccer pitch, taking swings on the golf simulator, as well as poker and other table games in inviting common areas. And not a single Fyre Fest-style sack lunch.

Honestly, it looks everything like a minor hockey player’s dream happening on a grand scale — and that NHL players are willing to be kids again.

Of course, any weekend that went circled on the calendar of a peewee hockey player was about competition on the ice first, and it seems the NHL nailed that as well.

Yes, by involving two major markets with minuscule odds to make the postseason back in mid-March, the NHL was deliberate with some of its intentions. However, what the league has managed with 24 teams immediately stepping into meaningful competition is an enhanced version of an already outstanding product, and nothing more than that.

With 16 teams competing in a best-of-five play-in round while a short round-robin tournament involving the league’s elite teams runs simultaneous, the NHL is staging a short, intriguing and mostly fair preceding round before working through the four-round grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs in full, thus preserving the integrity of the competition.

What we won’t see is meaningless, cash-grabbing excess — in other words, games involving teams that aren’t worth the inherent risks of playing professional sports in a pandemic.

Also worth lauding are the venues themselves, which have been transformed under the direction of the league’s production teams.

What’s incredibly striking in person is also translating well to television, as the NHL makes a point to improve the viewing experience, taking away non-essential seating in a crowd-less venue to install huge LED screens, new camera angles, and enhanced lighting.

Big things are apparently in store for when the qualification round begins when the calendar turns to August.

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On the precipice of an unprecedented restart, and appearing to do it safer than leagues beset with the same hurdles is impressive enough.

But what makes it almost unbelievable is the most exciting summer in hockey history would not have been possible without achieving something that has challenged the league immensely in the last 25 years: labour peace.

It turns out that orchestrating a plan to restart its season during a pandemic was only half the battle, because in order to follow through with plans, and on top of everything else, the NHL and NHLPA needed to come to terms on the framework of a collective bargaining agreement extension.

Given the league’s history of labour strife, and the battle lines being drawn in the other leagues, it was near astonishing to see the two sides recognize the grave consequences of failing to cooperate. In the end, each side agreed to legitimate concessions, and a deal was quickly brokered that will carry the two sides well beyond this public health crisis (hopefully), through the 2024-25 season, and back to the Olympics.

It took something extraordinary, and some things considered completely out of character, for the NHL to reach this moment. And the players deserve just the same amount of credit, too, for the discipline and commitment shown throughout the process.

However for both sides to complete the job, it’s clear the NHL still has to take meaningful steps toward proving its game really is for everyone, and the platforms that have been re-established are used to create positive change.

It would be a real shame, after seeming to take every correct step toward a restart, to spoil it once arriving there.

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