There has never been a better time for guessing and its unlikable cousin, second-guessing.
Three months ago: Closing the borders won’t help.
Today: We waited too long to close the borders.
Two months ago: Face masks don’t do much good.
Today: Only sociopaths leave their house unmasked.
One month ago: The economy will bounce back fine.
Today: Yeah, about the economy …
Sports are out there guessing, too. It’s not their natural strength and it shows. At the beginning of all this, things were going to be back to normal soon. Then they weren’t going to be back at all. Now they’re going to be back in some bowdlerized format. By next week, they may be playing basketball on the International Space Station: ‘Yes, getting them up there is an issue, but at least we’ll know they can’t break quarantine.’
The NHL’s current version of pandemic sports has more in common with a one-off tournament than a season.
Under the current plan, the unfinished regular season is over. The top 24 teams by points will bubble together and start the playoffs immediately.
The top four teams in each conference get byes. The other eight participate in some sort of play-in round. The final 16 start the postseason as normal. The Stanley Cup should wrap up by early September.
Will it work?
Well, define ‘work’. It will get done because there are too many financial incentives (or disincentives, depending how you look at it) for it not to.
What’s not being considered in this rush to restart is how pandemic hockey affects the NHL next season and beyond. Because once people get a look at this – and assuming it doesn’t collapse midway through – they aren’t going to want to go back. Once the NHL does the same, it won’t want to either, but in a different way.
The most pernicious structural problem facing professional team sports is the size. Success encouraged leagues to embrace a philosophy of constant expansion. More teams, more games, more playoffs, more money.
We had already reached the point where supply was beginning to outstrip demand. Revenues were rising, but audiences were shrinking. We’d reached a crest.
People had started to notice that the NHL is a sports version of The Young and the Restless. You could tune it out for weeks or months and when you rounded back again, not much had changed. Victor was still getting ready to marry Nikki (again).
This is the paradox of the regular season – it takes up most of the scheduling real estate and, in the end, doesn’t matter all that much.
If you are a good team, you will make the playoffs. More than half the teams do. Where you end up in the standings needn’t have any impact on your chances.
In fact, putting too much emphasis on the regular season tends to undermine a team’s ability to give it a great push on the final lap. Ask Tampa Bay.
Since the NHL draws the majority of its revenue from the regular season, that is a conundrum. If your favourite drinking establishment sold only bathtub gin Monday through Friday and champagne on Saturdays, that’s probably when you’d choose to roll by.
But the NHL needs its patrons to show up every day of the week. If they don’t, the bar goes under.
Spurred by the media’s talent for making something out of nothing – How is hockey in Toronto played without a 'C’ stitched onto someone’s chest? Leading hockey scientists say it should not be possible – the NHL has maintained the illusion that the regular season is important.
The pandemic is forcing the NHL to admit it isn’t.
Under the proposed emergency format, the Pittsburgh Penguins (ranked fifth in the east) will play the Montreal Canadiens (12th).
In modern business terms, the Penguins are a Fortune 500 tech company. An organization designed to shift with the changing times. The Canadians are a tire yard yet to discover the magic of the internet. If they had, they wouldn’t have made all those trades.
But after 70 or so games of the regular season, we find the two teams on equal footing. No home-ice advantage. No one goes into this thing on a roll. Everyone gets a dead start.
As mediocre as Montreal is, the Habs have Carey Price. He’s not what he once was, but if you had to pick one NHL goalie to back your team in a three- or five-game series, you’re probably taking Price.
Is that fair? It is not. Does that matter? It does not. I would like to see sports move closer to The Hunger Games, not further away.
But from the NHL’s perspective, it does tend to highlight how much of a waste of time the regular season has become.
Before the regular season, there is a preseason. No one cares about that. This past regular season just became the preseason for whatever we’re about to see next.
In case that isn’t clear enough, the NHL also plans to let the top eight bye teams play each other while the first postseason round is going on, just for practice. These games will have no stakes at all, other than for seedings.
So we’ll now have a preseason in the midst of a playoffs. Which is weird.
People will like this format because a) they are bored out of their minds and would watch Connor McDavid play marbles with his dog if he chose to broadcast it from home and b) because it’s a free-for-all. Every team has a chance here. Even your team and – presuming you are Canadian – your team is terrible.
The NHL will like this format because it features 24 teams. Without much consideration or any debate, the league has just boosted its playoff content by 50 per cent. That’s real money. Good luck trying to get the playoffs back down to the usual 16 teams once this is all over.
That will downgrade the regular season to functionally pointless. And yet, in order for the league to survive, the ticket-buying rubes will still be expected to treat all six months of it as can’t-miss entertainment.
In the end, the NHL will have solved its immediate problem by making the long-term one worse.