WICHITA, Kan. – As hockey fans, we are adept at watching when other leagues start, so we can start building the anticipation for our team and the upcoming season. One league, the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), comprised of teams in the United Kingdom, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, usually starts their season just after Labor Day, with North American leagues ramping up soon after.
Thanks to the Coronavirus, that won’t be happening this year.
While you slept last Tuesday morning, the EIHL announced they have suspended play indefinitely. Similarly to the AHL and ECHL, the EIHL (a league with the caliber of play that is a hybrid of the AHL & ECHL) was to start their season on December 4, but League Chairman Tony Smith announced they cannot commit to that date and have opted to suspend play indefinitely.
“We’ve been very open that we need to have fans back in our arenas for us to begin playing again. We operate around 75% to 100% capacity at our venues and this is the level of crowds we would need in order to go ahead at any point, which isn’t a realistic option right now,” Smith said in a statement. “Government compliance along with the safety of our players, officials, staff, and fans is paramount to this decision.”
There has been a recent uptick in the cases of Coronavirus in Great Britain, with the country currently having more than 302-thousand active cases. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland combined, there are roughly 50-thousand active cases, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
On its face, the EIHL’s announcement is not tremendously Earth-shattering, but is the right call and likely signals what is to come for hockey in North America.
Currently, the AHL and ECHL have tentative start dates of December 4, with the NHL starting three days earlier. Last week, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that when the Stanley Cup Final concludes in a matter of days, it could be January before we see the return of hockey. And prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Final, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman admitted the start of the 2020-21 NHL season could “slip into later December or could slip into January”:
“There’s still too much we don’t know,” Bettman said. “Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States will be open by a certain date; nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be; nobody can tell us whether our arenas will have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings. And we’re going to have to do the same thing we did for return to play: explore all the options, be flexible and agile enough to implement when the appropriate time comes.”
So far, there have been no formal announcements from the NHL, AHL, and ECHL regarding additional delays to the season.
Four factors go into when we might see hockey again in the United States.
First, and most importantly, the United States/Canada border remains closed to non-essential travel through at least October 21, and further extensions of that are likely. If and when the border re-opens, players would likely need to quarantine in their team’s location for 14 days.
Second, multiple players on NHL contracts have been loaned to teams in Europe, to get those players reps and continued development as those seasons get going. When those loans get recalled, it will be a sign things are moving in the right direction.
Third, local municipalities would need to feel confident the “curve has been flattened” enough in their areas to reopen major gathering locations, such as arenas. Once that happens, plans would need to be enacted, which likely includes retrofitting arenas to handle a socially-distant crowd.
Finally, teams would need at least a month to get everything ready for a potential season. According to Patrick Williams, AHL teams will need at least eight weeks to get ramped up prior to the season. This includes re-hiring laid off staff (or in some cases hiring new staff altogether), planning promotions, and selling. At the time of this article, there has been little movement in the AHL or ECHL toward making these moves.
Baked into all of this is the delicate balance of leagues and teams starting a season, only for there to be another wave of the virus that forces leagues to suspend their seasons, which is the doomsday (as if what we’re going through wasn’t already that) scenario. The bubble setting has worked for the NBA and NHL, but it has been extremely expensive to put on. Further, while useful to achieve the end of their seasons in the NHL and NBA, it is entirely too cost-prohibitive to pull off in the minor leagues.
Those are the facts. Now for the opinion part.
There is still too much we do not know right now to ensure that hockey will return to your arena at a date and time certain. One thing is for sure, this October will feel much different than it has in the past. But, until there is a clear strategy forward and we are seeing cases of the virus come down for multiple weeks, my feeling is that it’s probably best to hold off on bringing thousands of people into an indoor arena to watch hockey.
I have no doubt in my mind that when we are able to reunite and watch the sport we love, it will be a great day. But until then, we need to allow the science work toward developing the vaccine(s) and continue to do our part, so that day comes sooner rather than later.
Stay safe and healthy.