The NHL is looking at “probably eight or nine different places” that can accommodate “a dozen or so teams in one location” as it explores options for resuming the season, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday.
The Commissioner participated in a digital keynote interview with Leaders Week, a sports business conference originally scheduled to be held in New York, to discuss the League’s efforts since pausing the season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
“I don’t think anybody has a fixed timetable, particularly in North America right now,” Commissioner Bettman said. “We have been working very hard since we took the pause on March 12 to make sure that whatever the timing is, whatever the sequencing is, whatever physical ability we have in terms of locations to play, that we’re in a position to execute any or all of those options. There is still a great deal of uncertainty.”
The Commissioner said the NHL would need to resolve border and quarantine issues to reconvene the players, 17 percent of whom are outside North America, the rest of whom are spread around the continent.
If the NHL uses centralized locations, it probably would need the ability to play multiple games per day without fans. NHL arenas are best suited for that because of their back-of-the-house facilities, such as multiple locker rooms that can be sanitized as teams move in and out.
The League also would need the hotel space to house teams and the capacity to test personnel for COVID-19 without doing so at the expense of the medical community.
“I am told that there can be enough capacity, and certainly over the next couple of months, there will be more capacity,” Commissioner Bettman said. “But that is a fundamental question, and we certainly can’t be jumping the line in front of medical needs.”
The Commissioner said the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have been extraordinarily collaborative. They have formed a Return to Play Committee of executives and players that has held regular digital meetings.
“Do we complete the regular season when we’re given the opportunity?” Commissioner Bettman said. “Do we do an abbreviated regular season, because our competitive balance is so extraordinary, it’s hard to tell how the season would have ended? Do we go right to the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs and in what form?
“And if we’re not playing in front of fans, which at least in the short term seems [likely], do we do it in a centralized location or locations? And if so, what places might be suitable from a COVID-19 standpoint in terms of the communities that you’re in and how big the outbreak is? And what is the availability of testing? And so that requires a collaboration with our medical advisers.
“And I believe that all of the major sports in North America are going through this same exercise, and while the medical and health issues are probably to some extent the same for all of us, the logistics of what we do and how we do it may be a little different depending on the sport.”
The NHL has the flexibility to finish this season by playing in the summer and to delay the start of next season as late as December while playing a full schedule.
“We’d like to complete this season,” Commissioner Bettman said. “We’d like to award the Stanley Cup, the most treasured trophy and the most historic trophy in all of sports. And our fans are telling us overwhelmingly that’s what they’d like us to do, because people have an emotional investment in this season already.”
Commissioner Bettman said he believes large gatherings will come back quickly once the medical community has determined the best treatment for COVID-19 and there is a prospect of a vaccine. The Commissioner mentioned the possibility of masks, sanitizers and different seating configurations initially.
“Everything we’re hearing from our fans is that they’re [eager] to get back, and we don’t take that for granted, which is why we will do what the medical people tell us is necessary and appropriate for us to do to bring fans back,” Commissioner Bettman said. “And again, everything we do is going to be governed by the doctors, the medical people and by governments at all levels, which will tell us what is and isn’t appropriate for us to do.
“So a lot of our planning and a lot of the issues we’re confronting ultimately are going to be resolved for us by other people, whether it’s physicians or whether it’s governmental leaders, and that’s why we have to be doing a lot of contingency planning so we can react to whatever they’re telling is us appropriate and permissible.”
Commissioner Bettman said he was very optimistic and hopeful for the sports industry in the long term. Sports, he said, bring people together and help them heal.
“I think the major sports and their franchises will get through this and will come back as strong as ever,” the Commissioner said. “It’s just a question of time.”