NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Monday that the league is exploring each and every option possible in the hope of resuming the season.
Appearing on CNN with Anderson Cooper, Bettman made it clear, however, that it was unlikely games could take place any time soon.
The regular season was suspended on March 12 because of the threat caused by the novel coronavirus, the respiratory illness that causes COVID-19. The NHL’s 31 teams had from as few as 10 games to as many as 14 remaining. The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was originally set to begin last week.
“We’re exploring all options, but when we’ll have an opportunity to return depends on things that we have absolutely no control over,” Bettman said. "It all starts with everybody’s health and well-being.
“Until there is a sense that people can get together, not just to fill our arenas but even for our players to begin to get together to work out, we won’t know when we can come back.”
Some players, including Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, have home gyms. Most don’t, however, because they are used to training at their team’s training facilities.
“We had discussions with our players and the players’ association, as much as [they] might try to stay in shape with a home gym, our guys haven’t been on the ice for a month,” Bettman said. "They are going to need two to three weeks to get back in playing shape.
“As much as we may worry about keeping everybody in the NHL family safe from the coronavirus, we also want to make sure our players don’t jeopardize their health by coming back too soon and not being in game shape.”
McDavid joined other players last week in saying he hoped that the season could be relaunched. The Edmonton captain said the fairest thing for everybody would be for the regular season to be completed. With each passing day, however, that looks less likely.
Earlier, the league asked teams to see what kind of availability existed at their home rinks through the end of August. It has also explored the practicality of playing at neutral sites that could potentially play host to games, including Saskatoon, Grand Forks, N.D., and Manchester, N.H.
“We want to be prepared for every option whenever the circumstances present themselves,” the commissioner said. “We haven’t ruled anything in and we haven’t ruled anything out. We will be prepared to go in whatever direction makes sense at the time.”
Bettman joined the heads of other sports leagues in a conference call last week with U.S. President Donald Trump.
“It was a very constructive call,” the commissioner said. "We got an update from the President and we all expressed the desire to get sports back. It is something that, for the psyche of the American, and in my case Canadian public, is very important. Sports can be part of bringing people together. It can be part of healing.
“But we all agreed that until it is the right time there are other more pressing issues than when we come back. Again, everything starts with people’s health and well-being.”
Five of the seven Canadian teams were in a position to make the playoffs when the regular season was shut down. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Oilers and Calgary Flames were pretty much shoe-ins, while the Winnipeg Jets held a wild-card position and the Vancouver Canucks were only one point back.
On a conference call with journalists on Monday, Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty became one of the first players to publicly express doubt that the season could be salvaged.
“Honestly, I don’t see how the season is going to return,” said Doughty, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Kings and the 2016 Norris Trophy winner. “Everything keeps getting delayed, with lockdowns and stuff like that. People are dying every day.
“So I just don’t see how or when we’re going to be able to make any type of decision to return to the season. We have no idea when this virus is going to be over.”
If the Stanley Cup goes unawarded, it would only be the third time dating back to 1919. The Stanley Cup final was suspended after five games that year because of the breakout of the Spanish flu. The only other time it was not held was during the NHL lockout of 2004-05.
As of Monday afternoon, there were nearly 26,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and 778 deaths. The numbers in the U.S. were more significant, nearing 600,000 cases and 24,000 deaths.
“All of the [sports] leagues are basically focused on the same things,” Bettman said. "There is a lot of speculation that we are going to play at neutral sites and a variety of other places. The fact is, when you are in the position that all of us are in, you have to be prepared to relaunch when the opportunity presents itself.
“That means you have to not rule out any conceivable alternative, and be prepared for every one of them, even if some turn out not to be realistic.”