Four Weeks Down; How Could the 2019-20 Season Resume?

In an alternate, normal universe, April 10, 2020 would have marked the third day of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Pittsburgh Penguins would be a game or two into their first round series against whoever. Instead, we are in the universe where COVID-19 has forced the “pause” of the 2019-20 NHL season and, as it stands today, we are no closer to knowing if or when the season will resume.

The biggest problem remains that many cities and states/provinces across North America have had disparate policies of mitigation to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Whereas parts of California have been under shelter-in-place orders since the second week of March, these similar orders were not enacted in most of the Southeastern United States until this past week. The result is that we are starting to see an upswing in infections in those areas that didn’t implement those measures until recently, particularly in rural areas; at the same time, most of the major metropolitan areas are only now starting to approach the peaks of their outbreaks. This could lead to situation where, if those areas that are peaking now start to relax their orders, another wave of infections could arrive from the areas that were slower to respond.

If there had been a more immediate, nationwide response earlier on, we could have been a lot closer to a return to relative normalcy. As it is now, most of the localities which did respond earlier are expecting to remain under their current orders for at least another month. It’s frustrating that only now are states across the country are getting on the same page, although there are still several states, most of which in the Northern Plains, that continue to hold out against making the kinds of decisions that have been helping other states limit the virus’ spread.

In any event, I have been considering the options for the resumption of the 2019-20 NHL season, as I’m sure the Board of Governors and the Commissioner’s office have been since the season was paused. I think there are some creative solutions for the League to get the season resumed, but the first thing that needs to happen is that the pandemic must recede from the continent sufficiently that the risk of a second or third wave of infections is very limited.

The second thing that probably needs to happen is that the League and the Player’s Association have to agree to an amendment to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under normal circumstances, the annual term of players’ contracts ends on June 30; on July 1, any players whose contracts have expired as of June 30th are free agents. Thus, the League and the NHLPA would have to agree to change that date. You also have the Entry Draft, and those junior players whose situations would remain in limbo as well. This is the most practical complicating issue I can think of in the context of resuming play this summer or fall, besides some of the other issues about arranging the availability of venues for playing games. (I doubt that most, if not all, of the arenas NHL teams use have retained other scheduled events so long as these shelter-in-place orders remain in effect.)

If those two primary issues can be worked out, I see no reason that all options for resumption of play, including the resumption of the regular season, couldn’t be considered. Let’s say that the likelihood that the coronavirus pandemic remains a serious issue in North America through the summer is non-zero. This is fine for the NHL, since of course summer is the offseason for the League, and I would not anticipate the players nor the owners wanting to play games when it’s 90+F across the nation in July or August; ice doesn’t do so great under those conditions!

But come September, when the League would typically resume operations (training camps, preseason), this might not be a bad time for the League to resume to the 2019-20 season. Assuming things are returning to normal by then, hey, it’s still 2020, so it still counts! Every team has at most fourteen games to play so, if we’re being generous and the season resumed at the beginning of September, those games could be finished without back-to-backs by the end of the month, and the playoffs could begin in October. At that rate, I see no reason why the playoffs couldn’t conclude and the Stanley Cup awarded before Christmas. At this point you’re talking about having an abbreviated off-season, probably for the month of January, when the League could have its Awards Ceremony, Entry Draft, free agency, and a refresher of a training camp/preseason before getting what would be an abbreviated 2021 regular season underway in February, and hold the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs as normal starting in April, maybe a little later like in 2013.

Anyway, this is what I have in mind. I don’t think whoever wins the Cup for the 2019-20 season, if it is awarded like we all hope it will be (to the Pittsburgh Penguins), will mind the brief reign so long as it is an indication that things are getting back to relative normalcy in our society. Indeed, we are all by now aching for some sign that things will start turning in that direction. Maybe our spring will be lost, maybe even our summer, but hopefully by fall we can say that we have turned the corner or that we’re even further along than that. Only then can we seriously consider the return of hockey and all the good things we enjoyed in our life before this pandemic.