NHL’s Pandemic Playoff Picture Is a Perplexing Proposition

As much as I’ve eschewed professional sports over the past few years, there was never any doubt that I would tune in for playoff hockey. I could never help myself. It is an addiction, a tradition; it runs in my Canadian blood even though I’ve never skated on a pond, or woken up at 4 am on a frigid morning to head to the rink for practice.

As the years advanced and the business of professional sports has seeped in to chip away at my unconditional fandom, I now take a curmudgeonly stance when it comes to the sports I tune in to. The NFL is a total non-starter; the NBA is passable, and MLB games make me snore like a hibernating bear. The only one left for me is hockey. But issues like player safety, parity, and the tight grip Gary Bettman holds over his fiefdom have polluted what was once a joyous, significant part of my life.

The other day, I happened to catch Bettman’s 15-minute long Instagram story outlining the 2020 playoff picture, and the 2020 amateur draft. He started by saying that the fans “overwhelmingly” want to see a conclusion to the COVID-19-shortened season, but he neglected to mention that the NHLPA also voted to go along with his plan. So, the fans and the players both want it.

I don’t.

I don’t want it for the following reasons:

The asterisk

There will forever be an asterisk next to the 2019-20 season statistics denoting the “pause” in play because of the coronavirus pandemic. That asterisk will join the ones from the 1992 season that saw a short player walkout, the 94-95 season when it was shortened due to another labor dispute, and finally, the granddaddy of all lockouts during the 04-05 season when Bettman and his majordomo, Bill Daly, had the cojones to toss the entire slate of games because the league and the players could not agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. Since then, Bettman and company have had an iron grip on the NHLPA – save for the players hiring former MLBPA boss Donald Fehr – which doesn’t bode well for when the current CBA expires in 2022. I’ve gone without before, and I can go without again.

I don’t trust Commissioner Bettman

Bettman has been in charge of the league since 1993 and has overstayed his welcome by about a decade. He has too much of that “I’m always right – get over it” aspect to his public persona, and it reminds me of that thing that has been in residence in the White House for the past three-and-a-half years.

Moreover, his denial of the effect of concussions on the league’s players shows he is also incapable of empathy, just like a white-collar criminal defense attorney he might have become had he not been plucked by David Stern to help him run the NBA. Boiled down, he is a weaselly little nebbish, and I simply do not care for him.

N(O) Canada

The proposed playoff scenario is convoluted and ripe for all manner of controversy. One thing I do agree with is that not everyone was going to be happy with the plan. But, said plan remains incomplete, and it seems as if certain aspects of the playoff scenario are being dangled like carrots to the fans, the teams, and the cities they play in.

For example, there are going to be two “hub” cities where the games will be played; one for eastern teams, and one for western teams. Three Canadian cities have been placed on the shortlist for hubs: Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver. It would not surprise me at all if these cities did not make the final cut, which would send Canadian hockey fans into a rage-fueled fit of apoplexy. All of Canada is aware of Bettman’s disdain of its existence. (What could make it more obvious than the last expansion team landing in Vegas instead of Quebec City, where a state-of-the-art arena still stands empty?)

The empty arena 'atmosphere'

There will be absolutely no fans in attendance at any of the games. An NHL playoff crowd is unlike anything else in sports. To play a bunch of games in front of thousands of empty seats will be soul-crushing for the players who feed off the crowd’s energy, especially in overtime. I can’t begin to imagine how deflating scoring the winning goal in sudden-death overtime will be in front of an empty house. Seriously, I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.

Players' health

There is no way to be certain the players’ health won’t be at risk. Even though the NHLPA voted to go along with these shenanigans, you’d be ass-up in the sand pile if you didn’t think some of these guys fear for their health. Even though we’ve had statistics shoved down our throats about younger people being more likely to survive a tangle with COVID-19, it still doesn’t factor in underlying comorbidities that might not be evident in professional athletes. After all, how many young, promising athletes have we seen struck down by ailments that remained undetected by sports medicine professionals? Bettman can bloviate all he wants about player safety being paramount, but I think we know that making money is really what’s paramount to him and his cronies.

As the calendar prepares to flip to June, I say bag it all. A normal NHL season is long enough, and contemplating holding the playoffs during the summer months is as disorienting as a February heatwave. Mask-up and soldier on. We’ve gotten through it before, and we will get through it again.

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