If you were hoping the NHL would anywhere near a consensus, or even an idea, on how and when to return to play, you’re probably a pretty disappointed hockey fan right now. After weeks of stops and starts, just how much work is left to do was made clear when commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the league’s board of governors Monday.
Those involved in the calls have maintained that Bettman has leaned toward one format or another in recent weeks, but remains non-committal on everything. The flavor of the week is a 24-team play-in tournament in two hub cities, but that could all change. Understandably, the goalposts are being moved an almost daily basis, which is the reality under which the league has to operate because of the unpredictability of so many things that are out of its control. The day after Bettman spoke to the board, USA and Canada agreed to keep their borders closed to all non-essential traffic until at least June 21. So even if they open on that date, players would still have to quarantine in their home cities for two weeks, then hold a three-week training camp, which brings us to the end of July.
We are clearly running out of runway here, which makes the league’s unwillingness to commit a little frustrating. It’s a little bewildering that the league hasn’t at least put out some sort of framework of how the rest of the regular season and playoffs would look if it can return to play. The timing is obviously out of the league’s hands, but there is a growing sentiment that the NHL should get something out soon, with all qualifiers and caveats attached to it. That would at least keep fans engaged until they know whether or not the league can pull this off from a logistical standpoint.
But there was one nugget that emerged from Monday’s call, and it is not insignificant. In fact, it’s fairly huge. Bettman said on the call, as he has on others, that the NHL Players’ Association is working hand-in-hand with the league, “and he said it’s the best he’s seen in his career,” said a person who was on the call.
At first blush, you might think the bar for that particular statement is pretty low. Bettman has been NHL commissioner for more than 27 years now and relations with the players have been pockmarked with clashes. Under Bettman’s tenure the league has locked its players out three times, including the 2004-05 season that was wiped out.