BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 05/27/2020

Thiel: NHL gets going by throwing stuff away

After an OK by players, NHL said Tuesday it seeks to stage a 24-team tourney to conclude 2020. Where, when, and how to beat the virus? Hang on a bit . . .

Hockey can be played in a baseball park, in this case the Winter Classic in Philadelphia in 2012. Now we may get find out if it can be played in August. / Centpacrr, via Wiki Commons

In the contest to see which sports league can pump-fake the coronavirus into leaving its feet so a season can be sneaked in, the NHL is ahead. That is, if you don’t count the NFL, which for months has planned for a tomahawk jam over the top. The fabulists who run pro football have never lacked for audacity.

Gary Bettman Tuesday became first commissioner among the truncated-season outfits to publicly declare a plan for renewal.

He rolled out a scenario, approved by the players union Friday, for a 24-team tournament to award Lord Stanley’s Cup sometime in “the fall.” The squishiness did not end there.

Besides a pretty little tourney bracket, the plan was short on dates, sites and a clear virus-testing protocol. But it did throw away the remaining 2020 regular season of a dozen or so unplayed games for each team, as well as shunning seven teams from the field by dint of poor records when the anvil unexpectedly dropped on the regular season March 12 (I know; anvils always drop unexpectedly).

In the time of covid sports, throwing things away is a mark of progress.

Bettman did declare for the concept of the neutral-site, fan-free hub, a place where all teams re-locate to circle the hygienic wagons against the teensy hombre. In fact, he declared for two hubs, one to host the 12 Western Conference teams, one to host the 12 Eastern Conference teams.

He just didn’t say where the hubs were.

Bettman has yet to identify the hubs because, well, as was pointed out, he’s trying to get around the virus. His host-city candidates in the U.S. are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. In Canada, it’s Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton.

But chances for anywhere in The North, hockey’s home and native land, are already undercut.

]The Canadian government currently requires non-essential border-crossers to self-quarantine for 14 days, because many of its confirmed virus cases originated in the U.S. If the law goes unchanged, the hosers are hosed by toxic Yanks.

“We won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on the NHL’s teleconference media call. “We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”

Since a Canadian team has not won a Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993, this seems unseemly. The NHL can throw away regular-season games and seven ne’er-do-well teams, but it can’t throw away Canada. But if any prime minister or parliament can consider hockey players essential workers, it’s Canada’s.

“We don’t need to make a decision today,” Bettman said. “We’ll probably need to make one in three to four weeks. And at that point, we will be able to better evaluate how COVID-19 is in a particular place.”

If Bettman thinks he’ll know better in three to four weeks, he is greatly encouraged to call Dr. Anthony Fauci, the key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to share his epidemiological wizardry.

But in a time when the news changes by the nanosecond, Bettman can look at three to four weeks as an eternity. He is happy to have gotten to Tuesday, where he can announce a plan the owners created and the players signed off on, at least as far as format.

Phase 2 for the NHL permits clubs to return to home facilities for voluntary and small-group workouts on and off the ice. Phase 3 is a formal training camp, no earlier than July 1, likely mid-month, each team limited to 50 players and staff personnel. Phase 4 is reporting to hub cities, date unknown.

From a marketing standpoint, the tournament might score well in an August window ahead of the college and pro football seasons, up against a potential similar NBA post-season tournament in Orlando and the early days of an awkward baseball season to devoid of spitting and dugout group gropes after home runs. What’s the point of that?

Hey, hockey can be played with face shields. Whether they can be modified sufficiently to deny the virus is a bridge public-health officials have yet to cross. Daly did say, somewhat surprisingly, that one or two positive tests won’t necessarily bring asunder the entire fragile enterprise.

“One single positive test, depending on the circumstance, should not necessarily shut the whole operation down,” he said. “Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak. That will affect our ability to continue playing. But a single positive test or isolated positive tests, throughout a two-month tournament, should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.”

Thinking they can beat the virus on a breakaway. Heady days for the NHL.



  • Guy K. Browne

    “Since a Canadian team has not won — nor played in — a Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993” See Vancouver Canucks, 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. Just up the freeway.

    • James

      Shame on Art. Unforgivable.

    • Husky73

      I’m listenin’ the fu**in’ song!

      • Guy K. Browne

        “They brought their fu**in toys with them!!”

        • Husky73

          “I’d rather have them playin’ with their toys than with themselves.”

    • art thiel

      Meant to take that out before publication. Now fixed. Thanks,

  • Husky73

    Art tried to capture the spirit of the thing.

  • jafabian

    Since no dates are given the NHL is most likely aware that there’s a possibility they might not even have a season at all, especially since COVID19 numbers are still rising. I’m wondering how much Adam Silver weighed in on the NHL’s plans considering his relationship with Bettman and if the NHL is the NBA’s testing ground for their own plans?

    • art thiel

      I doubt Silver consulted, but both are drawing from the same CDC and NIH forecasts. The NBA has all but decided on Orlando as a hub, and Bettman wants to wait.

  • LarryLurex70

    I know neither the NBA nor NHL REALLY wants to leave money on the table here. But, as a “traditionalist” (I prefer the term “old school”. “Traditionalist” is too Bob Costas for my liking), I think both league proposals are just too gimmicky to take seriously. Particularly when live action wouldn’t begin until July, when they’d both have already been finished under normal circumstances.
    Just cancel the remainder of 2019-20 and develop a plan for starting training camps on time for 2020-21, if possible.
    Let MLB be the guinea pig and navigate the virus this summer. I’d actually like to see the season START with the All Star game. If fans can’t physically attend the game, they should at least get to select who they want to watch play the game on television. That’s really not too terribly different from how they’re normally selected anyway. Let’s see what they’re able to come up with that’ll hopefully give the sports slated to start in the fall more time to see if the curve does indeed flatten and a better idea of what they’ll be dealing with with regards to a potentially truncated season. It wouldn’t be the first time a season was suspended and not continued, but crowning a 2019-20 champion after this chaos just seems desperate and hollow at this point.

    • art thiel

      The incentive to have a playoff-like tournament is the ratings and the revs they produce are much higher. The disincentives is that players/coaches/staff die or are permanently damaged,

      But your description of “desperate and hollow” is spot on.

  • John

    Somehow, I think I am going to see the NHL have that same look as Wile E. Coyote did just before he realized that he’d gone past the edge of the cliff.

    • art thiel

      Don’t forget, he gets handed an anvil.

  • Kirkland

    Bettman is hell-bent on completing the season for financial reasons. If they abandon the season, the local TV contracts get locked in for next season at this year’s (lower) rates. So even though the sensible and sensitive thing to do is pack it in, he’ll make sure the season gets completed. And he’s willing to dig in his heels on this; the guy cancelled a season to get a salary cap.

    He’s also less willing to acknowledge health and science issues than the other commissioners, even Goodell. He’s steadfastly discounted the CTE problem hockey has, even though a few recently deceased players had it — heck, legendary Stan Mikita was found to have it in his autopsy. So his comments on playing around if not through the virus aren’t surprising. You’ll have fun, Art, when you attend his press conferences and he takes on a very defensive tone about a less-than-popular league position; witness his confrontational interviews with the CBC’s Ron MacLean (likely on YouTube).

    • art thiel

      Bettman learned at the feet of Stern how to be a hard-ass. No question he’s the toughest guy in a roomful of commissioners.

      I’m interested to see what today’s players deem an acceptable risk when the opponent can’t be slammed, punched or tripped.

      • Kirkland

        There’s plenty of slamming and tripping in the resumed German soccer league, and there will be in the upcoming New Zealand rugby season, but point taken.