A 24-team NHL tournament — play-in games would be followed by the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs — could become a reality this summer.
The NHL suspended its season March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak, but the league’s board of governors had a conference call Monday afternoon and discussed several topics. Among them: what it would take to resume play and the format that would be used.
The NHL’s Return to Play Committee, composed of league executives and some members of the Players Association, have floated an idea in which 24 of the 31 teams would be alive if the season resumed. It would include the top 12 teams in each conference based on winning percentage. The Flyers have the fourth-best percentage (. 645) in the Eastern Conference.
Several formats are being discussed, but nothing has been finalized.
“Nothing to report,” said one person who was on the governors’ call. “Hopefully, we will all know something soon.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Monday at a sports business conference held virtually, said the league was looking at eight or nine places that could accommodate a dozen or so teams at one location. Multiple games would be played at the locations each day.
The NHL has said two to four locations would host the games, and they would be played in NHL arenas in cities that are not coronavirus hot spots.
Bettman said there is “still a great deal of uncertainty” as to when the season would restart. Some of the uncertainty revolves around quarantine issues.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said Monday that if one or two players from a team tested positive for the coronavirus, it “wouldn’t necessarily require a team quarantine.”
“That continues to be the medical advice that both we and the Players Association (separately) are receiving,” Daly said in an email.
Bettman said getting players back to North America is also a concern. According to the NHL, 17% of its players are from outside North America.
There needs to be an abundance of testing before the NHL can return, Bettman said, adding he believes there will be enough capacity to eventually make it work.
“But we certainly can’t be jumping the line in front of medical needs,” he said.
Bettman said that he wanted to complete the season and that fans already have an “emotional investment” in it.
A three-week training period would be held before the season restarted, the league has said.
In interviews since the league was shut down, most NHL players seemed eager to return.
Washington defenseman Radko Gudas, a former Flyer, was an exception.
In an interview aired last week on a Czech Republic sports channel (CT Sport) and translated into English by hockey blog Russian Machine Never Breaks, Gudas questioned the NHL’s mindset in trying to return.
“If we kept playing, our sport would be swimming against the current a bit,” he said. “Money is money; it’s what currently makes the world go around. It’s a bit sad they are willing to risk the health of so many players for money.”
According to reports, the NHL stands to collect as much as $500 million in TV revenue if the league returns and holds the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“People miss it,” former Flyers star Simon Gagne said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “ … Even if it’s in the summer [when it returns], I know people here in Quebec and Canada will watch the game, for sure. In the United States, I’m not sure.”
The NHL has not crowned a champion twice since 1883. The first time was in 1919 because of the Spanish flu pandemic, which caused an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 in the United States.
The second time was in 2005, when the season was called off because of a lockout.
In 1919, the Stanley Cup Final was tied after five games (2-2-1) between the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans. The season was then canceled after several players and coaches — some with temperatures as high as 105 degrees — contracted the Spanish flu. Montreal defenseman Joe Hall, who later was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, died from complications from the illness.
This year’s Stanley Cup playoffs were scheduled to start April 8 and end, at the latest, on June 13.
If the NHL returns, the 2020-21 season will likely be delayed, perhaps starting in November or December.