Remember precedented times? Remember meeting up with friends? Remember what it was like to go outside and not think you were instantly putting hundreds of people in danger?
Back in April, I wrote about how I would be completely fine with the NHL moving on from 2019-20 and focus on having a safe, healthy return in the fall. The basis was mainly to keep the integrity of future seasons – keeping everything on schedule and allowing the NHL to work in unison (for the most part) with leagues around the world. Having the NHL operate on a different timeline than the rest of hockey would be a logistical struggle.
But that was me looking out for the big, old NHL and not the fans. And while I still stand by my belief that I would be completely fine with calling caput on the current season, there are “unprecedented times”. As this continues to drag on, we can’t keep looking at the NHL season like we would at any point over the past century. No matter what, the NHL season is going to have an unusual ending.
It’s understood that we’re getting close to a proper return to play plan. I’m not aware of the NHL’s financials and can’t claim to be an expert on how this is going to work for everyone’s wallets, but the NHL is a business. Money is important. The NHL isn’t going to make money sitting on the sidelines and waiting, and after NASCAR’s successful return to action over the pat few days, there’s evidence of a sport coming back and hitting things out of the park. It’s a bit different having one event on at a time where all fans of the sport is invested in it – a Vancouver Canucks fan likely isn’t dying to watch a matchup between the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets. But the NHL has an opportunity to really take control of the weeknight sports market, and that’s something Gary Bettman and the owners are enticed by (I don’t think I need a source to prove the NHL’s love of big paydays).
A 24-team playoff? All games limited to select venues? Setting the puck on fire to create real action? Force centers to take part in a karaoke sing-off to determine a faceoff winner? At this point, why not? The integrity of the 2019-20 season is gone. No matter what, there’s no saving the season and restoring it to what it was before. The Stanley Cup champion will always have an asterisk to some fans. Some good teams will miss out on the 16-team playoff format due to the play-in idea that’s been proposed. But again, that’s what makes the playoffs so much fun – look at the Blues last year, a team that was so off the mark just a few months before the post-season, but they won the Cup. Imagine Montreal or Chicago going all the way this year – that would be total bananas and a ton of fun.
We’ve been without hockey for over two months now. I almost completely forgot who the league’s top scorer was. If you had any momentum before the break (sorry, Philadelphia), it’s gone. But if there’s a chance for the world’s best hockey players to return, we, as fans, media, etc., should accept it. I’ve come to accept the oddities of the season, and let’s hope we never have to go through this again.
I’ll embrace a return to action and, who knows, maybe we’ll get one of the greatest playoffs we’ve ever had. We can’t use the “players are tired” excuse. The playoffs that seem to drag on after the first round won’t feel like a marathon anymore. Every game will be must-watch action. It’s not like the league has any form of tradition when it comes to playoff formats – it’s been changed more times than I can count. Why 16 teams? Why not 20? Why not 10? Why not six and force teams to be near-perfect to get a shot at the Cup? We’re talking about an arbitrary number, and we know more teams equals more profit. If the NHL held a 12-team format into the salary cap era and then switched to 16, people would complain. Most humans like familiarity and tradition, so that’s understandable. But let’s not for a second think that a 24-team playoff is some god-forsaken idea created by Satan to punish us: sports leagues are businesses, and given that it would be practically unfair to just give the top 16 teams automatic playoff bids, you can’t blame the NHL for trying to earn as much TV revenue as they can when fans aren’t allowed in the rinks.
I’ll watch nearly any form of hockey. I don’t care if it’s Montreal vs. Toronto, Bahrain vs. Egypt or the Isobel Cup final – if it’s good, it’s good. It doesn’t need the best players to be entertaining. So here we are, with the chance to watch the world’s top players fight it out with more attention than ever before. Let’s do it.
One of hockey’s best qualities is that it can be unpredictable. Los Angeles rode the wave of Jonathan Quick and went from a team barely capable of making the playoffs in 2012 to a shocking league champion. The 2018 Olympics had some of the craziest action I’ve ever seen at a high-level event. So what’s another crank in the cog? Let’s embrace this. If the NHL returns, we’ll finally have hockey back.
That far surpasses whatever else we’ve been doing for the past few months, right? I know I’m ready.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.