One Year Ago Today, the NHL Went Dark
March 12th, 2020. A day that no hockey fan looks back on fondly. It was exactly one year ago today that the NHL followed in the footsteps of the NBA and shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I was hoping to celebrate an anniversary such of this with full arenas. Obviously, that’s not possible right now. But we are slowly working our way out of this pandemic, and that’s what matters most right now. So much has changed this past year, both in and out of hockey. So, I thought I’d take some to reflect on the remarkable things the NHL has done in order to keep playing during this incredibly strange year. After all, what’s the point of an anniversary if you don’t do some reflection?
On March 11th, 2020, Rudy Gobert, who’s a center for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19. That night, the NBA announced that they’d be pausing their season due to this and rising cases across North America. Once they did that, all eyes turned to the NHL to see how they would respond.
They chose to play that night. However, everyone knew that it wouldn’t last much longer. In fact, it only lasted another 24 hours. The next day, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. That night, the NHL announced that they were following the NBA’s lead and putting their season on pause. In the span of just a day, the entire sports world ground to a halt as the U.S. was forced to face the fact that COVID wasn’t going away easily as we had all hoped.
There was hope the shutdown wouldn’t last long. Who else remembers leaving school or their place of work and saying “see you in two weeks!” only to not return for months, if you even have? I know I do. But that certainly didn’t happen. The longer it stretched on, the more the NHL was forced to detour from their original “we aren’t playing without fans (among other things)” statement if they hoped to award the Stanley Cup for the 2019-20 season. Eventually, they reached a plan.
The Return to Play
After months of consulting with infectious disease experts, hard work, and collaboration between the NHL and NHLPA, a return-to-play plan was agreed upon. The top 12 teams in each conference would get to resume play during the summer. It all began July 10th with teams opening training camp in their home cities. Players were tested daily and told to stay home as much as possible. Then, on July 26th, teams traveled to hub cities. The Western Conference reported to Edmonton, while the Eastern Conference reported to Toronto.
Once inside the hub, the players were physically isolated from the rest of the world. They were subjected to daily testing, just like they were during training camp. On top of that though, they were not allowed to leave the designated areas unless they were returning home for some reason. If they did return home, they were allowed to come back, but they had to quarantine for 14 days before re-entering the bubble, where they then had to quarantine for an additional four days and return four negative COVID tests. But anyway, once they arrived in the bubbles/hubs, they would finish up their training camps. Games resumed on August 1st with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
During the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, 16 teams played a best-of-five series for a playoff spot. The top four teams in each conference got a bye but had to play three round-robin games to determine seeding. Then, on August 10th, the real playoffs began and proceeded in the normal format. The first two rounds were held in teams’ respective hub cities, but after the second round, the Eastern teams had to move to the Edmonton hub for the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final.
Was it Successful?
The entire return to play was a massive success. During training camps, there were some positive tests returned, but the amount was minimal when you consider just how many players were being tested. Then, once they got to the bubble, there were zero positive tests the entire time. As a result, the Stanley Cup was able to be awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning (unfortunately for me). It went better than anybody had realistically hoped for, and the NHL and NHLPA deserve a lot of credit for this. Their plan was outstanding, and they got everyone involved to buy-in, which is quite the feat. So, yeah, I think you can say the return-to-play was successful.
Where We Are Now
Once the Stanley Cup was awarded, the focus immediately shifted to the 2020-21 season. Much like they did for the return-to-play, the NHL and NHLPA worked extremely hard and consulted with some of the top infectious disease experts in order to devise the best and safest plan possible. That plan was officially unveiled in December 2020.
The 56-game 2020-21 regular-season began January 13th. As of right now, it will conclude on May 8th, and playoffs will begin on May 11th. The top four teams from each division (more on those later) will qualify for the playoffs. The first two rounds will be played within each division. One team from each division will then proceed to the Conference Finals. They will then be seeded according to their regular-season record. Then, obviously, the winner of each series will play in the Stanley Cup Final.
As for how the regular-season is working, the divisions were completely re-aligned (including an all-Canadian division) to minimize the amount of travel necessary. Teams are only playing within their division. So, there is no bubble because it wasn’t feasible to play an entire season in that manner. But, players are still tested daily (and now undergo both a PCR and rapid test on game days) and are instructed to stay home unless doing something essential.
Has it Been Successful So Far?
The season got off to a rocky start. There were big outbreaks on several teams over the first several weeks. In response, the NHL heightened its’ protocols, with the most notable addition being game-day rapid tests. Ever since, things have been significantly better. Over the past few weeks, there have only been a handful of players on the COVID-19 protocol list at any given time, and most of them are due to testing issues. So, just like every league, the beginning of the season was a struggle, but *knocks aggressively on wood* the NHL has appeared to figure it out and they’re handling things much more successfully now.
Where We’re Going
25% of Americans have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and as a result, cases are going down nationwide. As of May 1st, every American adult will be eligible to receive the vaccine (or at least President Biden has instructed every state’s governor to make it that way). So, there is hope that at some point this summer, every American who wants the vaccine will have gotten it, and the pandemic will nearly be a thing of the past.
Because of all this, when Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the media yesterday, he expressed a lot of optimism about next season. As of right now, the plan is for a full 82-game season that begins on-time (meaning October), and for it to be normal, or at least as normal as it can be. This means the divisions will go back to normal, and the stands will be full again (or as close to it as possible). With the way things are going currently, I see no reason for that not to happen.
It’s Been A Strange Year, But Better Days Are Coming
All in all, it’s been a wild year, and obviously not just for the NHL, but the world. But, the things the NHL has been able to do to keep providing people an escape are truly remarkable. Luckily though, better days are coming soon. By this time next year, we should be looking back at this and hopefully sharing a laugh about just how crazy it all was while cheering on our favorite teams in a crowded arena.
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured image courtesy of NHL.com.
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