After an unprecedented four-month absence, the NHL returned with a bubble plan that, unlike baseball, has mostly avoided controversy. However, this doesn’t mean everything is going smoothly. The idea of a bubble both prevents the spread of COVID-19 and adds a reality TV dynamic to the 2020 season.
The NHL handles the coronavirus pandemic
Players had four months to prepare for the home stretch of the season and the NHL playoffs. When the season resumed, the league knew it had to take things seriously. Baseball and football were in preseason and offseason, respectively. However, the NHL, like the NBA, was entering the final weeks of the regular season. It had to decide the best course of action to return.
Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke on how important it was to think things through during the return to action:
“You’ve known me long enough to know that I don’t sit back and try to dislocate my shoulder trying to either pat myself or anybody else on the back,” Bettman said before the restart per ESPN. “This is just another step in what has been a long journey and still has many, many miles to go before we get to the ultimate place that we’re all striving for, which is the conclusion of the [2019-20] season and the presentation of what we all believe is the best trophy in all of sports.”
With America leading in COVID-19 deaths, the NHL looked north to resume the season in Edmonton. Eventually, the testing got reliable enough, and the protocol was drafted sufficiently to let the season return. The league has had a marvelous start when it comes to its lack of positive COVID-19 tests. However, as the league continues into the playoffs, other issues about the game itself have begun to come forward.
Fights in the bubble
Whether it was the four months off, the discourse around the world, or just an added intensity to an unusual situation, players in the Edmonton bubble have been a little feisty, reports the New York Times. Fighting in hockey is different than fighting in the NBA or baseball, where one punch can land someone a multi-game suspension. In the NHL, it’s gone to another level inside the bubble.
The Hurricanes’ Justin Williams took just three minutes to throw off his gloves and fight his opponents. He had a handful of fights in his early career. The speed with which he took offense to New York Rangers player Ryan Strome was equally amusing and befuddling, according to Fox Sports. Fights were rampant, even by hockey terms, as the league settled into its resumed season.
However, unlike a typical season where teams go their separate ways, players aren’t returning to their families after games. They’re going to the same hotel as other teams. With this comes some pitfalls.
Keeping it in the club
Hockey has long been criticized for its lack of transparency when it comes to injury-related issues. Citing the league’s policies in 2018, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation Chris Nowinski laid out these issues as Bleacher Report details.
“By hiding the final diagnosis, they avoid public scrutiny on their decisions to allow players to continue playing despite showing concussion signs on the ice,” Nowinski said. “Hiding the injury is also confusing to their audience, which includes youth hockey players and parents. Every properly managed concussion in a professional game is an educational opportunity, and by hiding the diagnosis, the NHL is promoting confusion around concussion signs in NHL players.”
In a bubble, however, players have to go to extra lengths to keep these injuries a secret. The league has often touted the strategic advantage opponents would have if they knew injury reports. As teams make their way around a hotel shared with several others, there’s a strict no-talking rule when it comes to injury-related situations.
No bubble is perfect, and while the NHL’s bubble has undoubtedly done well with regards to its practical purpose, new challenges arose that the league had to deal with. It is an unprecedented time around the world, and hockey is no exception. As a result, everything surrounding it is just a little stranger for everyone involved.