This year, for perhaps the first time ever, Gary Bettman may not get booed by hockey fans.
Well, let’s not get that far ahead of things.
Say this, however, for the forever beleaguered commissioner of the National Hockey League: He managed to come up with a sensible, ready-to-go return-to-action plan for hockey this summer.
An official date isn’t set yet — formal training camps won’t begin before July 1 and it might take three or so weeks after that. There isn’t a set location — two “hub” cities will be used out of a list of 10. There isn’t even a guarantee that hockey will be played — Bettman used the term “anticipates.”
Everything else is set and agreed upon though. A commissioner who has been met with scorn and skepticism from fans during the entirety of his nearly three decades in charge of the league has solved the problems others haven’t.
Major League Baseball and its players continue to bicker about money. The NBA, despite having smaller rosters, is still ironing out details of its 2020 return — to Disney World or not to Disney World? Major League Soccer hasn’t revealed much of anything.
Yet here comes hockey, one of the seemingly harder sports to operate during a viral pandemic — indoor play, close action, seating on benches that can’t be distanced. Here comes the NHL, leading the charge for once and potentially seizing the benefits of barreling early into a sports abyss desperate for, well, almost anything.
Here comes, Gary Bettman? What in the name of the glowing puck is going on?
Bettman unveiled the plan on Tuesday afternoon. The regular season is over. The top 12 teams in each conference will advance to the postseason — up from the traditional eight.
The top four seeds will get a first-round bye, but will play three games in a round-robin format to determine seeding (and shake off some rust). The remaining eight will pair off in best-of-five series. Then the traditional four-round Stanley Cup playoff format begins — best-of-seven series are guaranteed for the conference finals and Cup finals only.
Games will be played, at least for the first few rounds, in two hub cities, with no fans present. The candidates: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
There will be testing, precautions and everything else, of course. Exact details weren’t revealed because there was no way to make them exact details. Everything is fluid.
“While nothing is without risk, assuring health and safety has been central to our planning and will remain so,” Bettman said.
(The NHL also announced a formula to determine draft order but if you are smart enough to understand it then you should be working on a COVID-19 vaccine and not wasting time with hockey drafts.)
What matters here is that Bettman got enough ducks in a row to move forward with a concrete plan to finish the 2019-20 season, which was suspended back in mid-March. Namely, the NHLPA was involved in everything and are in agreement. That includes revenue distribution and the willingness for teams to move away from their families in hub cities for a lengthy stretch.
“No one wants to be isolated from their families but everyone understands that for a period of time there has to be some of that,” the NHLPA’s Donald Fehr said on NBCSN.
Credit the players for that. A lot of people have to work far from home for extended periods … and they get paid a lot less than professional athletes. The guys want to get this done and are willing to sacrifice by moving into a pseudo bubble for awhile.
Credit Bettman and the owners as well, though. The vote for this plan reportedly wasn’t unanimous and there is probably a detail or three that every team might object over. Yet a deal got shepherded to a consensus.
“This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion,” Bettman said.
If the other major leagues can get going remains to be seen. This isn’t easy. That the NHL is at least prepared to start when it can represents an accomplishment and also an opportunity.
Well, wait until they catch a glimpse of playoff hockey.
There’s a long way to go between now and then, but at least hockey has its roadmap. For a league that is too often its own worst enemy, where self-inflicted wounds limit the popularity of a game that deserves better, this is a banner day.
Gary Bettman has his league ready. That’s something worth cheering.
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