As the world tries to deal with the ugly realities of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, the NHL is scrambling to put on as many regular-season games as possible, to get them at or near the 82-game standard plateau. But as the virus has mutated into something new and potentially more dangerous, the league has struggled to establish a COVID-free workplace for NHL players.
Consequently, their participation in the Olympics has been the first to fall by the wayside; and now, daily, the NHL is announcing postponements of games. But if you’ve paid attention in the past few days, you’ll know the league is doing its damndest to stage games with fans in the stands. They’ve amended the collective bargaining agreement to allow for taxi squads teams can utilize if a COVID breakout greatly decimates their roster. They’re willing, in the short-term, to accept attendance at 50 percent capacity. They’re not, however, willing to go another full year without fans in the stands.
And that makes you wonder: how much further is the league willing to go to clear the bar and assure itself of in-arena paying customers? Is it going to dip so far into the mid-and-lower tiers for players to step in for COVID-positive players, it looks like an American League product? No offense to arguably hockey’s second-best league, but people aren’t paying big money for NHL tickets to see the healthiest of their minor-leaguers take the ice.
This isn’t the NBA, which has been a sham in its reaction to the virus: on Boxing day, the Toronto Raptors had to sign four players – two of who had 50 games or fewer of NBA experience – so that they had eight players eligible to play. Needless to say, their opponents, the Cleveland Cavaliers, won by 45 points. That should never happen unless (a) gambling is somehow directly affecting the players; or (b) the 1992 Olympic gold-medal-champion American men’s’ basketball team is playing the 1936 silver-medallist team from Mexico.
At some point, you have to read the room properly, and postpone more and more games until this latest variant of the virus is starved out. As we’ve seen, though, many people are unwilling to think of the public good and do what they have to in regard to vaccines. The salary cap rules the NHL just changed to address taxi squads are so byzantine, it just drains interest in the overall entertainment product. First, we’re asking fans to love math because of the cap. That’s one thing. It’s entirely another now that we’re asking them to be capologists themselves to understand who is eligible to be sent down, recalled, and added to the taxi squad. We turn to sports in no small part for an escape, but there is no avoiding the damage COVID is doing.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s good for the NHL to try and give its customers as many games as it can reasonably handle. But there’s the key word – “reasonably”. It’s not reasonable to turn games into farces, just so you can sell a couple thousand hot dogs and twice as many beers. It’s not reasonable to put athletes at risk, and put their families in a protective/suffocating bubble, simply to say we’re all getting 82 games from each team.
If we have to lop off five or 10 games off every team’s schedule, so be it. We can’t play just for playing’s sake. The monster we’re dealing with is not a fan of hockey, or of humans for that matter. It does not discriminate. So, use what would’ve been the Olympic break to ease the traffic jam of postponed games that are piling up. If you have to play the same team on back-to-back nights in just one city, that’s what you have to do to be responsible. Reasonable.
Right now, with the pandemic squealing all around us, reason absolutely has to come before anything else.