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What we’re hearing about the 2020-21 NHL season

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The restarted NHL season is just over a month old. The bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton have held, with zero positive tests for the coronavirus. The action on the ice has been exciting, if missing that extra zest of a live playoff audience. After facing so many challenges in returning to play — including owners and the players agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement — it appears the Stanley Cup will be awarded and a 10-month-long 2019-20 season will be concluded.

Then comes the hard part: Figuring out what on earth the 2020-21 season is going to look like.

It’s something NHL teams inside and outside the bubble have been planning for during the past few months. Modeling seasons with or without fans. Estimating the cost of COVID-related safety measures. Attempting to predict the length, and more importantly the location, of the NHL’s next season.

“We know it’s going to be bad. We’re going to try and make it as ‘least bad’ as possible,” one NHL team executive told ESPN recently. “We know we’re going to take a bath. We’re all going to take big baths.”

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called any declarative statements about next season “premature,” adding “we are not far along in the planning for next year, nor do we need to be.” But teams are formulating and forecasting, given how quickly they’ll have to move when those plans are formalized.

Over the past week, ESPN spoke to team and league executives to take the pulse of what next hockey season might look like.

What the schedule will look like

Ever since the pandemic upended the 2019-20 season, commissioner Gary Bettman has been insistent on restoring as much normalcy as possible next season, including a full 82-game slate for every team.

“Looking at the schedule, making some adjustments, we believe we can play a full season, and if we run a little later than usual, that may be one of the consequences,” he said.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association tentatively agreed to a Dec. 1 start date for 2020-21, with training camps beginning on Nov. 17. But privately, team executives believe that’s too ambitious. The further the NHL pushes back the start date, the less likely a full schedule is. Awarding a Stanley Cup in September or October isn’t going to be a regular occurrence.

As one high-ranking team business executive told ESPN bluntly: “We all realize an 82-game schedule for next season is a pipe dream. It’s just not going to happen.”

One NHL executive told ESPN he anticipated a season of around 60 to 65 games, beginning in mid-to-late January. Another NHL team executive believed 70 games would be the baseline for next season, because that’s a number typically used as a minimum for regional TV contracts — although that number was “more of a guidepost” than a mandatory minimum.

Aaron Teats, the Anaheim Ducks‘ president of business operations, believes the situation remains fluid. “It’s been made abundantly clear by Gary and the league that there has to be a high degree of flexibility here,” Teats said. “There is a tentative Dec. 1 date, but there is also the desire to play in front of as many fans as possible. We are all hopeful that can be full buildings.”

In an interview with NHL.com in late August, Daly emphasized patience. The NHL waited until as late as possible to finalize details for the return-to-play tournament this summer — allowing the league to pivot from Las Vegas to two Canadian cities — and will follow a similar approach this fall.

“We also have the benefit of being able to observe what happens over the next several weeks and months with respect to the fall sports and college sports and European leagues, how everything kind of shakes out around the world, really, in terms of live sporting events and how they’re conducted,” Daly told NHL.com. “We don’t have to make that decision today, similar to other decisions we make along the way in this process.”

But league partners are having to already make those calls. The ECHL board of governors has approved a revised start date for its 2020-21 season of Dec. 4, for a full 72-game schedule. The American Hockey League, the NHL’s top minor league affiliate, is already planning for a condensed schedule. The AHL has pushed its start date back from Oct. 9 to Dec. 4, though newly appointed league president Scott Howson emphasized that the AHL remains amenable to changes. There is currently no targeted end date for the AHL season.

“Our Pacific Division typically plays 68 games and everyone else plays 76,” Howson said. “But we will not get to 76. The most we’ll do right now is probably in the high sixties. And that’s the most — and we aren’t committed to that yet, either.”

One thing Howson can predict: a highly regionalized schedule to reduce the league’s footprint and minimize hotel stays. “We have a certain number of teams, including Colorado, Charlotte, Texas, Manitoba, that have to fly,” Howson said. “So we’re going to have to have flights there. But we’re going to eliminate flights as much as possible. When we do have a schedule, you’ll see it’s very regionally based for this year.”

Howson also pointed to another lingering issue for both the AHL and NHL: travel restrictions.

“We’ve got a huge issue with the Canadian border right now, and our league is going to look a lot different if that doesn’t get resolved, though we’re all hoping it will,” Howson said. “We have four Canadian teams, so in terms of going over the border to play them is not possible right now. And then we have Canadian NHL teams that have their AHL teams in the States. To recall players is an issue. So we need to work through that. That’s a big issue for our league, in terms of scheduling, and in terms of NHL clubs and getting access to their players if we had a normal season.”


Getting fans back in the seats

NHL teams have one advantage when it comes to the seemingly endless possibilities for next season, in that they’ve been modeling different scenarios since the shutdown in March. At the time of the pause no one knew if the regular season was actually finished. So teams began planning for the possibility of holding games in empty arenas or with partially filled stands, before the bubbles plan was approved.

As time has passed, those models have been whittled down. One NHL team executive said his club is down to three different scenarios:

  • No fans in the stands

  • A progressive projection, starting with no fans and then increasing to 50% and then up to 90%

  • An optimistic case in which the arena opens with fans, and the progression is 50% to 75% to 90% capacity

Behind the scenes, some power brokers in sports and entertainment are making the same optimistic timeline prediction: a vaccine for front-line workers sometime in December and a more widely distributed vaccine in the spring. Whether or not that’s a product of an echo chamber, one NHL team executive who was aware of that theory predicted that teams will be able to open up the gates in the spring.

“In an optimistic scenario, you’re talking about mid-to-late January open,” said the executive. “In a more conservative scenario, you’re talking about February or March, because it makes it more likely that you’ll have fans sooner. So much of the revenue is driven by gate, that we need fans in the building. If there are no fans, we’re going to lose a ton of money. That’s from the players to everybody on down. I think most of us can sustain it for a good period of time, but I don’t think all can. We need fans.”

Unlike the other major sports, NHL teams are more reliant on arena revenues than massive rights deals. Added Teats: “For all teams, the gate is a significant source of revenue. We’re in a spot where the preservation of this revenue is becoming critical.”

Since the Ducks are one of seven teams not in this summer’s tournament, Teats said they have had a head start on planning and have modeled everything from allowing 25% capacity of fans, 50% capacity and full arenas.

In the AHL, the situation is even more dire. Howson explained that “from a financial standpoint, the economics just don’t make sense at all without fans” for AHL games.

“That would be a real burden for a lot of our franchises,” Howson said. “Now we do have 19 — soon to be 20 once Seattle comes in, because they bought an AHL franchise — NHL-owned teams. So the economics stay the same for them, but the priorities could be different in terms of player development or whatever. But our economic model doesn’t work at all without fans.”

Howson predicts it’s a decision that will need to be made “jurisdiction by jurisdiction,” depending on COVID-19 numbers and government regulations.

“We’ll have as many fans as we possibly can based on what the local health and state authorities are saying,” Howson said. “If that means we can have 75% in one market and 25% in another, that’s what we’ll follow.”

One of the toughest issues for NHL teams seeking to open with limited capacity is dealing with season-ticket holders. “We’ve been trying to communicate with our season-ticket holders the best we can,” one NHL team executive said. “And we’re being transparent: even we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

Another NHL team executive explained “you’ll have to rotate it.” So if the capacity is 25%, season-ticket holders would attend one out of every four games. What complicates this for teams: Not all games are created equal. Many NHL teams have variable pricing for games against popular opponents and heated rivals. That’s not even mentioning the equitable distribution of tickets to weekend games.

What will those tickets cost, given their potential scarcity? Teams have indicated that they anticipate a limited supply of tickets will not mean an increase in prices, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be discounted either.

Luxury suites present an interesting conundrum. San Jose Sharks president Jonathan Becher told ESPN in May that the Sharks were considering scenarios in which 12-18 people are in each suite, and that they are all filled because of their glass enclosures. There’s a sense around the league that they’ll remain appealing to fans. But luxury suites are usually owned by businesses, and COVID-19’s impact on those businesses will obviously impact their ability to own them or rent them.

While ticket sales are important, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“We have a partner agreement. We have broadcast agreements. We have all these things here that need to be taken into account along with a live game in front of us,” Teats said. “I’m sure it’s critical for us to maintain that sense of business continuity and be able to serve our fans and our partners. But any time you start reducing the capacity and the number of fans that you’re going to allow into the building, it’s going to have a significant impact on your bottom line.”


More bubbles?

Former Sportsnet analyst and NHL TV executive John Shannon made waves recently when he reported that the NHL and the NHLPA were mulling a proposal about next season: Four bubble cities, rotating all 31 teams through those venues in eight-game increments.

One benefit from that plan would be the ability to “frontload” the 2020-21 campaign. As we’ve seen in the restarted season, without travel time and with the ability to play multiple games during the day, the schedule moves briskly.

The question is whether that model even makes sense financially for the teams. The league was willing to shoulder the cost for the restarted season in Toronto and Edmonton out of desperation. While the exact figure for the NHL bubble hasn’t been determined, the NBA’s bubble in Orlando has cost between $170 million and $175 million, according to multiple sources and reports.

To add two more sites and seven more teams to a bubble plan would mean an even greater investment — and continued personal sacrifice for players and league staffers. But one NHL team executive said this scenario is better than the current Major League Baseball model, in which teams are traveling to cities just to play in empty stadiums.

In his interview with NHL.com, Daly said he doesn’t want to “rule anything out,” but he poured some cold water on the divisional bubble idea.

“I don’t think our current format for bubbles would work for the regular season, particularly because our objective is to play a full season and I’m not sure how we do that in the format we’re currently utilizing,” Daly said. “It’s already a significant amount of time just to complete our playoffs in that type of bubble format. I don’t think it’s going to look like what we’re currently doing, but could it be a variation of what we’re currently doing.”

In the AHL, meanwhile, the scenario is even less likely.

“I think a bubble — certainly to the scale of what the NHL and NBA have done — is probably not possible for us,” Howson said. “But I don’t want to rule anything out of what we could do to play some hockey.”

Would NHL players be OK with going into another bubble to start next season? A source close to the NHLPA says that discussion is premature. “It’s such a personal decision that plays into what your teammates think and what your fellow players around the league think,” the source said. “Until we know exactly what it looks like — a defined timeline of how many days you’re going to be there — and put something in front of the players, it’s very tough to say. But guys will have similar concerns if they’re told it’s an indefinite time period, like being away from family.”

Ultimately, only a handful of players opted out of the NHL’s restart, with most citing compelling personal reasons, such as a family member who is immunocompromised.

Like this summer’s tournament, terms for next season will have to be negotiated between the league and players’ union. As former NHL player and Sportsnet analyst Anthony Stewart told the ESPN on Ice podcast last week, finances (and dreaded escrow) will factor in players’ decision making for next season.

“If it’s a difference between, ‘Well, you’re going to make 80% of your salary or 40% of your salary whether you enter the bubble or not,’ I think guys will have to think long and hard about having to do this again,” Stewart said. “Because there’s a lot of skeptics thinking the league was going to get shut down, and it wouldn’t be a success, but it has been.”


Health and safety

The term “NHL player safety” has typically referred to policing the dangers found on the ice. It’s taken on a new meaning thanks to COVID-19. As teams look to reopen in their arenas next season, they’re exploring — and pricing out — all the options available for everything from cleaning services to businesses that specialize in “COVID-proofing” common areas. That means investing in air filtration systems, Plexiglas and other safety items, not only for locations that the players frequent, but elsewhere in arenas.

“I understand there’s a lot of talk about social distancing, but let’s be honest: If you think about stadiums and arenas, do you social distance when you are going into the arena?” says Tim Leiweke, the CEO and founder of the Oak View Group, which manages more than half of the NHL’s arenas. “That’s a temporary moment that we’re dealing with now that helps us contain the pandemic; it doesn’t cure the pandemic. Long term, we can’t social distance attendance and fans. One thing we’ve learned from the many doctors that are advising us on our wellness council, as well as our task force, is that like the flu, this thing will be with us forever, so the key is to put it into a box.”

That means equipping arenas with better sanitization techniques, as well as contactless touch points for concessions. Teats didn’t rule out something as simple as limiting head counts in restrooms. Face masks and contact tracing will likely be staples of the in-arena experience in the short term.

“We have to monitor employees to make sure they’re healthy before they come to the arena, not as they arrive at the arena,” Leiweke said.

In the beginning of the shutdown, it was like an episode of “Shark Tank” for NHL teams. Back in May, Becher mentioned a conversation with one entrepreneur who claimed to have built “a piece of technology that will 100% safeguard buildings from coronavirus because it can kill the virus as it’s expelled from someone’s mouth.”

While he wouldn’t completely discount its potential — he asked for certification of its effectiveness before even considering its use at SAP Center — Becher actually found the pitching process to be somewhat inspiring. “In a weird way, I like it, because it means the collective intellectual power of the world is trying to solve this problem,” he said. “And to me, that makes me hopeful that we can solve it.”

Those pitches are still coming in for teams, although less frequently.

“In the beginning, it was a joke. But for every crackpot that tries to sell you their uncle’s new potion, there have been some things that we think are going to be effective,” one NHL team executive said.

Leiweke said from a design and engineering standpoint, “air circulation [in arenas] is the highest priority for us right now.”

After the bubble, the NHL will have some proof of concept from other entertainment ventures that reopened. Indoor dining has returned in many areas. Movie theaters have plotted their reopening, using a combination of social distancing and cleaning options. By the time next season arrives, there will be a good sense of what worked, what didn’t, and how the marketplace responded.

That includes other sports leagues. NHL teams are monitoring one concept that’s being used by teams like the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have a “Safe Stadium Policy” in which seat blocks known as pods are being sold. Fans will be required to “maintain pod integrity by only transferring tickets to family or friends within their trusted group.” This concept of seating consumers with members of their group is also being used in movie theaters.

Getting the fans seated is one concern. But what happens when they get up? The concourses in most arenas are jammed with people between periods. Even with mandatory masks, can there be enough traffic control as to make the concourses safe? Then there are concession stands. One team speculated that there could be more direct to consumer concession sales with handheld devices.

“We are going to need to be more sophisticated in order to return confidence and trust from the consumer back into the experience,” Leiweke said. “But we will. We’ll do what we have to do, following the scientists, following the technology, following the entrepreneurs.”

Trust may be the biggest factor here. Trusting in science. Trusting in safety. But most of all, trusting that the same people — the NHL and the NHLPA — that successfully relaunched a season this summer can do the same for next season this winter.

“We recognize there’s not a lot of certainty with respect to what this looks like yet, and there may not be for some period of time,” Daly told NHL.com. “We’re going to have to remain flexible and we’re going to have to make the best decisions we can at the time we have to make them.”

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