Despite the ill effects of the coronavirus pandemic on all live sports, hockey fans may well get a Stanley Cup in 2020.
The top official of the National Hockey League said the sports organization anticipated its teams might return to play in the summer and fall, and sketched out a plan to hold post-season playoffs and the Stanley Cup in two “hub cities” that would be named later.
“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans are telling us in overwhelming numbers that they want us to complete the season,” said Gary Bettman, the NHL’s Commissioner, in remarks delivered Tuesday afternoon. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been essential to our plan so far, and will remain so,” he said.
Under current plans, the league would consider regular-season play completed, Bettman said, and would have 24 of 31 teams try to start training camps no earlier than July 1. If things progressed well, the teams would compete in two different cities where they would have secure transportation and lodging, as well as a venue for play. The process, he suggested, is likely to evolve depending on conditions of players as well as policies set by various local authorities.
Fans have not seen NHL play since March 12, when the league suspended its 2019-2020 regular season, due to concerns about the pandemic. The NHL said it has played 85% of the regular season schedule that started in early October of last year, or 1,082 or 1,271 games.
The NHL unveiled its maneuvers to resume play as other big sports leagues are attempting similar feats. The National Basketball Association said over the weekend that it was in talks with Walt Disney Company to house teams around a massive ESPN sports complex that is part of the Walt Disney World theme-park complex. Major League Baseball is said to be in the midst of internal deliberations about how to hold a shortened season. And the National Football League has said it intends to mount a full 2020-2021 season, complete with a Super Bowl broadcast next year on CBS.
As powerful and influential as the sports leagues are, none of their executives can predict how coronavirus might affect American life over coming weeks and months. And despite a suite of testing protocols for athletes, each organization faces the potential for players, coaches and support staff to contract the virus or pass it to someone else.
The NHL’s process is a detailed one -and represents the most information released by one of the major leagues so far over how to hold games in the midst of the pandemic.
The NHL expects teams will be permitted to return to home facilities in early June, where small groups of players may hold voluntary training sessions. Formal training camps, said Bettman, could start no earlier than the first half of July, depending on guidance from medical and local officials.
The two “hubs” will be selected from among Chicago; Columbus; Dallas; Edmonton; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Pittsburgh.; Toronto and British Columbia. Teams will only be able to have 50 people in their “hub” city, and only bring a small number of support staff into event areas. All of it the league said, will hinge on coronavirus conditions, testing availability and government policies.