Their smiles as rare as a Gordie Howe hat trick, faced with the daunting prospect of a new season about to open amid a raging pandemic, NHL boss Gary Bettman and top deputy Bill Daly revealed Monday afternoon that the NHL’s losses this season will exceed $1 billion.
“The magnitude of the loss,” said a somber Bettman, “when you add it all up, starts with a ‘B’. We are out of the ‘M’ range and into the ‘B’ range … and, you know, that’s what we have to deal with and that’s what the clubs have decided they are prepared to do — even though it would be a smaller number if we just shut down for the year.”
Welcome to the harsh reality of love of hockey, and the harsh reality of finance, in the time of COVID-19.
The new NHL season, a schedule trimmed back from 82 to 56 games this season, begins Wednesday, and already the losses are pegged to average at least some $32 million per team.
Pain and suffering are a normal part of the game for the guys on the ice. Now the owners, by Bettman’s telling, have pre-ordered bandages to stem the bleeding.
Bettman and Daly answered questions on myriad subjects from North American media outlets for more than an hour on a Zoom presser. The steep financial loss, on the heels of a summer playoff season that cost the league tens of millions of dollars to stage, was the headline-grabber.
No surprise. Pandemic or no pandemic, money always calls the tune, no matter the sport, and that’s especially true in a league that has suffered through multiple labor lockouts centered around the institution of a salary-cap system that began with the 2005-06 season.
According to Bettman, the league derives approximately half of its gross revenue from its in-arena experience, dollars collected from an array of sources: sales of tickets and suites, parking, concessions.
“Our gate, directly and indirectly, people at our games is somewhere around 50 percent of our revenues,” said Bettman. “I read commentary that says is 60, it’s 70, it’s 80. It’s not that much. Directly and indirectly it’s about 50 percent.”
Virtually all that money, as of today, can be considered wiped from the books. Have a happy new season.
As of Monday night, the Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, and Arizona Coyotes, three of the league’s 31 teams, will be the only clubs to open with any fans in the stands — at levels vastly below capacity (example: Arizona will be limited to a maximum of 3,450). The Bruins, who will play their first home game in an empty TD Garden a week from Thursday vs. the Flyers, are one of 28 clubs currently barred by state regulation to open their doors.
According to Daly, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Tampa could be the next to allow some customers in for games.
“What’s aspirational is we get through the season,” said Bettman, responding to a question about what could be a realistic hope for filling up the stands — and to what levels — as this season progresses. “And that we have an on-ice terrific season, great playoffs, we present the Stanley Cup and the world is back to normal for the ’21-22 season.”
In other words, before the puck is dropped, the short view is to suffer the gut punch and hope to live to play another day. Such is the harsh reality of a pandemic that led to about another 27,000 deaths in the United States in the first 10 days of January.
“Anything beyond that would be great,” said Bettman, focusing on the question about fans in the stands, “but we are planning as if, you know, we aren’t going to be having fans overwhelmingly in most of our buildings — to the extent we can, it will be in limited numbers.”
Some other points Bettman and Daly covered included:
▪ As previously reported, the Bruins will be among four teams to participate in a pair of outdoor games on the frozen waters of Lake Tahoe. Vegas will face Colorado Feb. 20, followed the next day by the Bruins vs. the Flyers.
If you’re wondering, don’t … fans will not be allowed to attend the Tahoe games.
But things could be worse. The Sharks, the franchise closest to Tahoe, weren’t invited, in large part because the league felt the four other clubs had more national TV appeal. Meanwhile, the Sharks don’t even know if local health regulations will allow them to play any games in their hometown Tank this season. NHL and Shark reps hope to get a ruling on Tuesday from county health officials.
▪ Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Day, will see the league again honor Willie O’Ree, the ex-Bruins winger who was the first to break the league’s color line — 63 years ago, on Jan. 18, when he suited up at the Montreal Forum. The Bruins will skate in a 5 p.m. game vs. the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. All NHL players that day will wear an O’Ree decal on the back of their helmet.
It was abundantly clear that league officials know they’re facing the potential for COVID-induced headaches. Already, the Stars have seen their training camp shut down for days because of an outbreak. Bettman and Daly preached patience and persistence, with Bettman reiterating that health and safety of players was paramount.
To its credit, the league pulled off the intricate bubble playoff format over the summer without a hitch, albeit with COVID numbers a mere fraction of where they are these days.
One interesting side note to the protocols: In all 31 NHL cities, one hotel has been designated as the only place visiting teams will stay. The Bruins are part of an eight-team division. All seven of their opponents will stay in the same hotel, the league hoping the move will help limit the chance of a viral outbreak, and also help if contact tracing becomes and issue.
The potential for a rough ride awaits. Each club will carry between 27 and 29 roster players, meaning a work force of over 850 will be mixing it up over a regular season scheduled to end May 8. There were some owners, knowing the magnitude of losses that awaited them, in favor of shutting down for the season and hoping to get back to a normal world — if we ever see that again — come October of this year.
But onward they skate, with fingers crossed inside their leather gloves.
“It would be a smaller [financial loss] if we just shut down for the year,” said Bettman, “but everybody thought it was important, as one of the four major sports, for us to take our role and play our game and deliver what people expect from us. And that’s what everybody signed on to do.”