Based on the way it does its job, one assumes the NHL does all its holiday shopping at a 24-hour gas station on the evening of Dec. 24. The whole “prepare to win” ethos clearly hasn’t made it north of the locker rooms.
If the league and its union are to be believed, we are three weeks from the beginning of the season. They’ve set the financial terms (i.e. everyone takes a bath). They’ve agreed to a 56-game season. They’ve nailed down most of the major dates.
What they haven’t figured out is where everyone’s playing. Over the weekend, the league and various provincial health authorities were still arm-wrestling over who gets to come out of each meeting shouting, “HEALTH AND SAFETY PREVAIL,” louder than everyone else.
Do they really need to play NHL hockey in Canada? No, they don’t.
Is it that much worse than a family of six escaping the TQZ (Toronto Quarantine Zone) with an audacious romp down the QEW, where they may or may not go shopping at a mall in Oakville? No, it is not.
But one of these things gives politicians and other types of microphone-hungry spokespeople a chance to get their dander up on TV, and the other does not.
Skipping back and forth across the Canada-U.S. border is one thing. The United States is no longer a hot zone. It’s more like a viral oven.
But Toronto-Winnipeg? On a private jet? Accompanied by team medics, your own testing apparatus and the strong desire to keep on the right side of history? I’m not getting a “think about the children” vibe from this one.
A lot of us have developed a highly convenient double standard on this issue. We expect the working class – our bus drivers, garbage collectors and coffee shop baristas – to be out there on the job. I mean, there’s a risk, sure. But where else am I going to get a latte the way I like it? Let’s be reasonable about this.
When anyone else suggests assuming the same risk to do jobs that do not directly contribute to making life more comfortable for the rest of us, words cannot describe their selfishness. We’ve agreed to be unreasonable about that.
So the NHL must do its sackcloth-and-ashes routine, slinking from one bureaucrat to the next looking for a holy writ of permission.
It’s not yet clear how this ends, but I am certain about one thing: By the time this is over, every single person involved will have had a chance to announce how all this was done with the safety of each and every Canadian upper-most in their minds. Then all of them will hustle out to Whole Foods, Home Depot and the liquor store to pick up a few things before everything shuts down for Christmas.
What is also certain is that the NHL is developing a reputation as that sports league. The one who’s always falling behind the group. The one that’s not quite as sharp as everyone else in class.
While hockey’s still hashing out the most basic precepts of a 2021 season, basketball – its annual scheduling twin – will start its season on Tuesday. This isn’t primarily a function of money or labour relations. It’s an issue of prioritizing your schedule.
The NBA hashed out its business over the late summer and finalized a deal in early November.
Back in the summer, what exactly was everyone at the NHL doing? Because we know it wasn’t vacationing anywhere cool.
Assuming they took a bunch of time off, surely they were back at work by fall. It can’t have escaped their notice that the pandemic had not ended while they were all up at cottages without WiFi.
By October, they must have sensed a small problem developing – as in, they had no concrete plan to play hockey again. November? What was November about? Did Zoom get accidentally deleted from Gary Bettman’s phone and no one in IT could figure out how to get it back on there?
It’s only in December – when they should already have been on the ice, prepping for a January start – that discussions appeared to get serious.
The charitable view is that this was financial brinksmanship. This was ownership trying to bring the union to heel.
Because other leagues have found themselves in the same spot, ended up in the same remunerative zip code, and haven’t had the same cascading start-up problems, the less charitable view seems more likely – that despite their fame, wealth and apparent influence, too few people in hockey have any clue what’s going on.
Little wonder, then, that they are only now realizing that politicians and public-health officials are less interested in whether hockey poses a risk and more concerned with how assuming any sort of risk reflects on them. In terms of negotiations, this was a pure relationship play. Getting to know people and assuage their concerns takes time.
If your plan is announcing an all-Canadian division, soaking up several weeks’ worth of good press about it, then trying to shotgun a half-dozen governments into going along with it, you may find yourself disappointed.
Have any of these guys ever tried to get a driver’s licence renewed a week after it’s expired? Because I believe they are getting an inkling of that experience right now.
The NHL will figure this out, because everything gets figured out eventually. If the Canucks can’t play in British Columbia or the Jets in Manitoba, other Canadian cities will happily take them. With no fans in the stands, does it really matter where anyone plays? It does not.
But one thing that will not recover in the short term is the NHL’s reputation for competence. This year has exposed it as the league least able to. Able to what exactly? You name it. The NHL will find a way to make it difficult.