Obviously, I’m a diehard hockey fan. I’ve worked in the sport in some capacity for nearly a decade. Without hockey, who knows what career path I would have picked. Hockey means so much to me.
But at this point, I’m ready for the NHL to just hang up the laces for 2019-20. It’s dead. It’s gone. Move on. Unordinary circumstances got in the way and there’s nothing that can authentically save the season – just artificially.
We’ve been in quarantine for over a month and by now, most people have accepted we’re not going to see sports in the ways we used to prior to March. Even before the official shutdown, it felt weird showing up to Scotiabank Arena in Toronto to interview players in what was essentially an unused changeroom for the Toronto Raptors – but calling it an oversized closet might be more accurate. This was my first year covering the sport for an entire season, so the potential demise of the season would be a bittersweet end to a season in which I finally achieved a life goal of mine.
We’re waiting for a ticking timebomb. I can’t see a way the NHL returns in any meaningful capacity. I get the idea of doing a 24-team playoff or just skipping to the final 16 right away, but it’s going to feel forced. I may be the only person who wants a shorter NHL playoff – the MLB has it right the way they do it. It keeps you hooked for weeks with little to no downtime. The NHL would never follow such a format, playing nearly every night, but the idea of a shorter = better playoff is something I’ve felt for years.
How do you do that in the NHL? Revert to a best-of-three, best-of-five and best-of-seven format for the final two rounds. Or, heck, even have a best of three Stanley Cup final. Are you the best team? Prove it as quickly as possible. The NHL and its 31 team owners would never agree to such a thing, but you’re lying to yourself if you say you’re fully engaged for four rounds of hockey dragging over three months – especially when the Memorial Cup and World Hockey Championship also take place in the spring.
Maybe that’s a knock on our attention spans (but, hey, some of my favorite sporting events take 24 hours to complete), but it’s hard to think that the NHL could possibly do the right thing in this case. And we’re not talking about them specifically screwing up something simple – a return anytime soon would endanger lives. If the league was to return in, let’s say, October and finish out the playoffs, it would need to be quite condensed to finish the season before 2021 hits. And what happens to all the contracts that expire on July 1? And what about players like Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle? Do they just go back to their respective junior/European pro clubs and waste part of their development playing in a league where they don’t have much more to gain? Forget about a shortened 2020-21 season, how will moving the expiry date of 2019-20 hurt 2021-22? And beyond? How does that trickle down to the leagues around the world that have already kiboshed their seasons?
There are more questions than answers, but that’s bound to happen when only a handful of people on the planet have a realistic idea of what’s next. We’d all love for sports to return back to normal as soon as possible, but we know that’s not happening. Are fans willing to wait a little longer to get sports back if it means keeping everything in check? Would a return to empty stadiums in August make much sense?
While it’s admirable the NHL hasn’t called quits on the season, it’s truly hard to think of the possibility of 2019-20 finishing in any significant amplitude. Nobody benefits from the season getting cancelled, but we could have a chance at regaining normalcy in the event that 2020-21 can start on time. The campaign started off tainted with the slew of coach firings for undesirable conduct and regardless of what happens, it’s something the league will want to put far into the past.
I want hockey back as much as any of you, but I’d rather be realistic about the situation. There’s no easy way of getting things back on track without having an adverse effect on the future. Do we sacrifice the season – and thus fail to crown a Stanley Cup champion without a labor dispute for just the second time – in order to keep everything else intact? Maybe, but at this point, I don’t have much hope for the season returning anytime soon.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.