The NHL is prepared to deal with disruptions and lose billions of dollars to play the 2020-21 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday.
“Let me make something really clear: We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people, particularly those who are back in isolation or where there are curfews, a sense of normalcy and something to do,” Commissioner Bettman said.
“It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play. We are going to run through more money — or [to] say it differently, lose more money at the club level and at the league level — by playing than by not playing. But the owners unanimously are OK with that because they know how important it is for our fans and for the game.”
The season opens with five games Wednesday, starting with the Philadelphia Flyers hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at Wells Fargo Center (5:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1). Each team is scheduled to play 56 games within divisions realigned temporarily because of Canada-United States border restrictions and the need to reduce travel.
Commissioner Bettman announced Monday that NHL players will wear helmet decals to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Willie O’Ree becoming the first Black player in the NHL and to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in the United States honoring the late civil rights leader. Both are Jan. 18, but players will wear the decals from Jan. 16 through the end of February, which is Black History Month.
The Commissioner also announced a unique new event: the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe, two games on the shore of North America’s largest alpine lake against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. The Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday will feature the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 20 (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS). The Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday will feature the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 21 (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).
With the exception of the Lake Tahoe games near the California-Nevada border in Stateline, Nevada, teams will not be in bubbles as they were when the NHL returned to play in 2019-20 with a 24-team tournament in Edmonton and Toronto.
Commissioner Bettman said the testing numbers have been “very good” in training camp, though a few teams have had disruptions and one, the Dallas Stars, had six players and two staff members test positive. Their team facilities were closed, their first two games of the season, at the Florida Panthers on Jan. 14 and 15, were postponed, and the NHL is reviewing and revising their schedule with the expectation that they will not open their season earlier than Jan. 19.
“In order for us to get through the season, we understand that there is an element of risk, that COVID-19 may impact one or more games,” Commissioner Bettman said. “We also understand as we have throughout that in order to accomplish our goal, we’re going to need to be flexible and agile in how we deal with whatever we’re confronted with, and we are again prepared to do that.”
The Commissioner said the NHL has issued 12 protocols totaling 213 pages.
“As I told the managers and the coaches, the protocols are not a suggestion or a recommendation,” Commissioner Bettman said. “It will need to be done in order for us to address and get through the pandemic, and we will vigorously enforce them. There will be lots of judgment calls that we have along the way, and … we will be guided by the medical experts with respect to doing that.”
The San Jose Sharks held camp in Scottsdale, Arizona, because they were unable to at home. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the Sharks would meet with Santa Clara County representatives Tuesday and could play their home games in another location if necessary.
Most teams will open the season in their home arenas without fans in the stands. Daly said the Stars, Arizona Coyotes and Panthers will have a limited amount under local regulations, and the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins might be able to have a limited amount in the near future. The Tampa Bay Lightning are on hold.
“Allowing fans in buildings isn’t really financially driven at all,” Daly said. “It really is to connect and engage with your fan base should you have the ability to do it in person. There’s not a lot of money to be made at the numbers we’re talking about.”
Teams are allowed to put advertising on helmets and in new locations in their arenas, but Commissioner Bettman said for the most part it is amount retaining revenue, not generating it.
“To the extent that there are advertiser and sponsor arrangements and relationships, it enables our clubs to retain monies that they might otherwise have to refund either because the season is shortened or because there are no fans in the building,” the Commissioner said. “With no fans in the building, it gave us an opportunity to try some things which we couldn’t do if there were fans in the building, and I don’t think anybody should jump to conclusions that because we’ve done this we’re now down a path to do a whole bunch of other things.”
The financial cost will be significant.
“The magnitude of the loss, when you add it all up, starts with a B,” Commissioner Bettman said. “We’re out of the M range and into the B range. And you know, that’s just what we have to deal with, and that’s what the clubs have decided that they’re prepared to do.
“Even though it would be a smaller number if we just shut down for a year, everybody thought it was important as one of the four major sports to take our role and play our game and deliver what people expect from us, and that’s what everybody signed on to do.”