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NHL return plan could set the model for other sports leagues to follow

Daniel Roberts
·Editor-at-Large
·6 mins read

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday unveiled a detailed and methodical plan for professional hockey to return in July or August for a 24-team NHL Playoffs—and it could set the model for the other leagues that had to pause their seasons in March (NBA, MLS) to follow.

The NHL is not the league most industry-watchers would have expected to be the leader in this process. On March 11, the NBA kicked off a domino effect of sports closures when it became the first league to halt its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19; MLS and then the NHL followed the NBA’s lead the next day. In the weeks that followed, many onlookers praised NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for setting the precedent.

Now each pro league—the ones that were already underway in March and had to hit pause, and MLB, which never got to start its season—is working diligently on how and when to pick back up. The NBA aims to bring all of its teams to Orlando to finish its season. MLB wants to start in July with a half-length season and with teams only playing teams in their geographic region, but there are snags with the proposed revenue split between the owners and players. MLS Commissioner Don Garber is “cautiously optimistic” soccer can return, but has also been frank that his league gets a “vast vast vast majority of our income” from ticket sales, so playing in empty stadiums would be very bad for business.

The NHL’s plan is the most detailed so far. It also makes the NHL the first of the leagues that paused their seasons to call off the rest of its regular season; the 2020 NHL regular season effectively ended March 11.

The league is calling the current period Phase 1, during which players and teams have been quarantining. Phase 2 in early June would allow teams to start practicing in small groups at their team facilities. In Phase 3, which the NHL says would not start sooner than mid-July, formal training camps would begin, depending on local safety guidelines. In Phase 4, all 24 teams in the Playoffs (the top 12 teams in each NHL conference on March 12, when the season paused) would head to two “hub cities” to play the postseason with no fans present. Teams will be limited to bringing 50 personnel to the hub cities. The top four teams (Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia in the East; St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas in the West) will begin with a round robin tournament to determine seeding. Bettman said he thinks the NHL could get through the first two rounds of the playoffs in a month.

The NHL is not giving exact timing on when Phase 4 could begin, and it’s not yet naming the two hub cities, but it shared a list of the top candidates: Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Pittsburgh; Toronto; or Vancouver.

Las Vegas looks very likely to be one of the two cities, as it has already been mentioned as a place where multiple sports could base their return; pro boxing will begin its return there on June 9 at the MGM Grand. And for fans who worry a team like Las Vegas would have a competitive advantage by playing in its home city, the absence of fans mostly removes that advantage, though Bettman also said, “Particularly given the fact that there's no fans in the stands, we certainly see some merit to moving the club to a different market so that any perceived advantages associated with being in a home market are eliminated.”

Jun 12, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; St. Louis Blues fans celebrate after their team defeated the Boston Bruins in game seven of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 12, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; St. Louis Blues fans celebrate after their team defeated the Boston Bruins in game seven of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, there are many asterisks to the plan and possible pitfalls. If the U.S. sees a new spike in cases over the next few weeks, that would crimp the return plan for all sports; or if NHL competition begins and a number of players contract the virus, that would likely force the league to shut down again, a scenario every league fears.

For the NHL, there’s also a specific travel wrench: three-quarters of its players are from countries outside the U.S., and many went home during quarantine. For the players who will return to Canada (where seven of the NHL’s 31 teams are based), that country is still requiring 14-day self-quarantine.

A later-than-usual NHL Playoffs may have an impact on existing sponsorship deals and broadcast schedules, but NBC Sports, which won’t have the Olympics to air this summer, will likely be happy to have something. The player salary plan is also unclear, which could prompt the same thorny issues MLB is having with the MLBPA.

All of these issues may delay the NHL’s return far past mid-July, which would likely delay the start of the NHL’s next season, which typically starts in October. That’s fine by Bettman, who said on the call on Tuesday, “There's no magic to starting in October... We can start in November, we can start in December, we can start the beginning of January if we had to. We're going to be playing over the summer this year, so the answer is we'll get through this season and we'll make sure there's enough of a pause between the end of this season and next, and then we'll start up again.”

Two things are certain: if the NHL does return this summer, the eyeballs will likely be greater than usual, as sports fans are starving for live sports to watch (“The Match,” a celebrity golf challenge between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, aired this past weekend on TNT and was the most-watched golf event in cable history); and the other leagues are watching each other closely, and particular the NHL now.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more on how coronavirus is hitting the sports world:

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