This being prom season, the NHL made it formal Tuesday and issued an unprecedented 24 invitations to its 31 teams to come to the big playoff dance it has proposed for sometime during the summer (all dates TBA).
Let’s give NHL owners, and more so the rank and file stick carriers, an A-plus for effort, good intentions, and risk tolerance. Despite the ongoing pandemic, it was clear that both sides remain eager to resume play in the coming months and have a Stanley Cup champion crowned, perhaps by late September or even into October.
In a world where best intentions often can be harder to come by than a Gordie Howe hat trick, all of that was magnificent to hear, especially on the 76th day of the league’s pause in play. Be still our broken hockey hearts.
All of it, including intensive testing for COVID-19, will be staged at a league cost of “tens of millions of dollars,” according to commissioner Gary Bettman. No small price in hopes of resuscitating an industry for what would be a made-for-TV-only event with no plans to sell a single ticket to a live, seat-occupying, popcorn-munching, beer-drinking customer.
However, it was also clear amid the details of the complex, nearly mind-numbing blue print for a grand reopening that it’s still quite possible none of it ever happens.
Everything put forth on Tuesday was aspirational. Some of the details, as mundane as roster size and eligibility, have yet to be finalized. Such is life in a world still handcuffed and hogtied by the coronavirus, which on Tuesday claimed its 100,000th victim in the United States.
That was the stark, undeniable reality for the NHL, and both Bettman and Donald Fehr, head of the players’ association, acknowledged it with their repeated caveats about health and safety of the work force being their top priority. They want this to happen. They’ve invested a huge amount of time and effort already in plotting a pathway to return. But it could very well all go for naught.
“There is an ongoing ‘if’ question,” noted Fehr, the onetime head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, during his interview with NBC Sports Network after Bettman’s announcement. “Can we satisfy the health and safety of the players and the rest of the staff and everybody else that would be involved? And can all the rest of the agreements that need to be reached be done?"
With that in mind, Bettman, whose face wore the fatigue of a man whose industry was reduced to ash three months earlier, could offer no hard-and-fast deadlines. Everything is fungible right now in the world of vulcanized rubber, and will remain so through the summer and into the fall, given that there is no vaccine or other magic wand to shoo away the horror of COVID-19.
When do players begin informal skates? No timeline. Most likely on or about the middle of next month. Local health ordinances could dictate.
How about a date for the formal reboot of training camp? Still up in the air. Probably 2-3 weeks after the informal skates commence. Not sure.
When do the playoff games begin? Heck, maybe late July or early August. If things go right, or at least if they don’t go horribly wrong.
And the crowning of a Cup winner? Still working on that, too, but based on the tenor of the late-afternoon announcement, it easily could be the end of September or when Dunkin’ is rolling out those pumpkin lattes.
Overall, the announcement provided excitement, but instilled little or no confidence. These people are not short of want or will. They just can’t predict what sort of wicked this way might come.
Keep in mind, 60 days earlier, only two weeks into the NHL shutdown, the COVID-19 death toll in the US stood at 1,195. By the time Bettman wrapped up an early-evening Zoom meeting with many of the game’s beat reporters, the number of dead stood at 100,545.
“Before I get into the details,” Bettman cautioned as he rolled out his elaborate plans, “I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, and essential support staff in our communities are paramount. While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety is essential to all of our planning so far, and will remain so.”
All we know for the moment is that the 2019-20 regular season is done and the Bruins finished with the league’s No. 1 record at 44-14-12. They are the season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner, another feather in the cap of coach Bruce Cassidy (now 261-161-66, .682 in his four seasons as bench boss).
Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs on Wednesday or Thursday is expected to OK the release of the $1.5 million he pledged weeks ago to cover some of the lost wages of approximately 1,500 event staff personnel for employees of the Bruins, the Garden, and Sportservice.
Each employee will receive the same base compensation, believed to be upward of $500, and some will receive substantially more, based on seniority and total number of events worked during their tenure.
The complexity of the NHL’s lengthy return-to-play plan, released over the weekend, could be found on page No. 21, a chart entitled “disinfectant checklist form.”
Per the form, once play resumes (if), here is the detail of what must be kept scrubbed:
▪ Exercise bikes (specifically handles and seats).
▪ Workout equipment and visiting room weights.
▪ Locker stalls (including seats, all areas of the stall, and the tops of the stall).
▪ Change room stalls.
▪ Bathrooms, including washroom stalls, toilets, and urinals.
▪ Medical/training tables (perhaps the most important area).
▪ Floor fans utilized to circulate air and dry equipment.
▪ Doorknobs, tables, counters, and other “frequently touched” surfaces.
▪ Bench areas.
▪ Whirlpools, hot tubs.
It is a plan that reflects great effort, detail, and wisdom, cobbled together the last 10-plus weeks with no template to follow, no history to offer a way or warning. In and of itself, it will take a Herculean effort to execute, with no one knowing if even the magic of television can make it intriguing to watch when there is no one in the stands.
It is indeed prom season, but in 2020 it’s an invisible virus that calls the tune and decides if anyone gets to dance.