When the NHL announced its return-to-play protocols back in July, there was no shortage of skeptics who were convinced the league’s pie-in-the-sky aspirations that would come crashing down. But now all that stands between the league pulling this off without a hitch are a minimum of four more games and a maximum of seven.
So if you’re going to scoff at NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s stated intention to play a full 82-game season and playoff in 2020-21, do so at your own peril. This is a league that often messes things up, but the way it has handled the pandemic while maintaining the integrity of the Stanley Cup tournament has been nothing short of remarkable. As Bettman pointed out, nobody is doing a victory lap yet, but including exhibition games, the league has put on 136 games in two venues over the past 53 days. It has conducted more than 31,000 tests without a single positive. And it has met the needs of more than 1,200 people from the 24 participating teams in the bubbles.
And it has been a financial success. One source said the league has spent $100 million to put the tournament on and has accrued at least $500 million in revenues and counting, as well as securing more future corporate sponsors who were impressed with the way it operated. So when Bettman says he wants an 82-game season, even amidst the uncertainty of a second wave of a global pandemic, we should not dismiss the possibility, as much of a longshot as it seems at the moment.
One of the first things Bettman said at his annual pre-Stanley Cup final media availability Saturday afternoon was that the NHL is shooting for a Dec. 1 start date, but he also acknowledged that might be pushed back to mid-December or even into January. If that’s the case, finishing an 82-game season and playoffs means we’ll all likely be watching hockey again next summer. Bettman wisely would not make any definitive statements about next season, largely because so much is out of his control.
“Anything that anybody suggests or reads or writes or commentates about next season is nothing short of speculation,” Bettman said. “Obviously, we’ve started informally thinking about what optionality is. There is no point right now in making any definitive comments on our plans because there’s still too much we don’t know. Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States is going to be open by a date certain, nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be, nobody can tell me whether or not our arenas will be able to have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings.”
So that means everything is on the table with nothing on the table at the same time. Bettman was asked whether there would be an all-Canadian division next season to guard against the border still being closed and was non-committal. He did say, and he was quick to point out that it was simply a musing, that perhaps the league begins the season with no fans in the seats, then transitions to socially distanced crowds before having full crowds in the buildings. But with no vaccine or quick test on the horizon, that will indeed be a tall order. And all 31 teams are facing either greatly reduced or (gulp) even no revenues next season depending on how things unfold. Bettman did say that while that’s a worst-case scenario, the teams have never been as well-positioned to endure it than they are now, even in a league where more than half the revenues are derived from attendance.
“The only good news in this context is that the ownership of the 31, soon to be 32, NHL franchises has never been stronger and healthier,” Bettman said. “And while nobody has any revenue coming in right now and owners are obviously writing checks to cover overhead and expenses, our franchises will get through this and will come out stronger on the other side. Yes, there will be a revenue hit. While we know it will be less, we know it will be a substantial revenue impact, I’m comfortable that our franchises will be strong enough to weather this.”
Some of the sting will be taken away by the $650 million expansion fee, which will be evenly split among 30 NHL teams, with the Vegas Golden Knights not being eligible. None of the teams has received its expansion money yet, but they are budgeting for a one-time payment of about $21.7 million at some point between now and what would have been the end of the 2019-20 season under normal circumstances. One thing Bettman was emphatic about was that, amid all the uncertainty, the Seattle Kraken will start on time for the 2021-22 season, even if there are no junior or minor pro leagues in North America to scout for players. “I want (my) answer to be as definitive as possible,” Bettman said. “David Bonderman’s ownership group, Tod Leiweke and the organization he has put together, they can’t wait to get started. The building is progressing and we have every reason to believe they will start when we begin the season after next.”