Why the NHL’s Return Is Doomed to Fail

The nation has lacked its four major pro sports since March due to the COVID-19. July is a big month as the MLB, NHL, and NBA are all set to return. (NFL training camps will open, too.) The NHL was the first to detail its return plan. But hockey fans are concerned that the comeback will lead to another shutdown. Here’s why the NHL’s return is doomed to fail. 

The NHL’s shutdown

Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the NHL
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery | Bruce Bennett/NHLI via Getty Images

Like all major pro sports leagues, the NHL shuttered its operations in mid-March as the nation began its response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. From there, the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL all came to a standstill and waited for one of the others to make the first move.

MLB was preparing to start its season while the NFL was at the beginning of its offseason. The NBA and NHL were the most affected, as they were in the middle of already occurring seasons. The league scrambled to come up with a plan that would accomplish all of the following goals: 

  • Complete the 2019-20 NHL season
  • Put the NHL back on TV to fulfill its cable contracts
  • Keep the players, coaches, and staff safe and healthy

Easier said than done, right? 

The NHL’s return

On May 26, the NHL announced its “Return to Play” plan. The plan included 24 teams returning for a modified playoff system where two “hub cities” would host games. This was meant to cut down on travel. The plan limited each team’s personnel that could be on site. It featured a “round robin” opening round to determine seeding, followed by a first and second round, followed by the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals. 

The return has yet to kick-off, but there have already been bumps in the road. The plan features numbered phases for the return. The league conducted over 2,900 player tests during phase two of the comeback. According to CBS Sports, 35 players had tested positive so far. The league released a statement on the positive tests: 

“All players who have tested positive have been self-isolated and are following CDC and Health Canada protocols … The NHL will continue to provide regular updates on the number of tests administered to players and the results of those tests. The league will not be providing information on the identity of the players or clubs.”

Why the NHL’s return is doomed to fail


Long Before Patrick Roy, the NHL Had Its Very Own St. Pats

While the NHL should be commended for its willingness to return to provide its fans with entertainment, the experiment is likely to fail. For one, the coronavirus is highly contagious. Also, the NHL players aren’t confined to a “bubble.” Whereas the NBA and WNBA players are all living in a campus-like atmosphere, NHL players are free to come and go.

Ultimately, the odds of a positive test or catching the virus are rather high. If the players were confined to a specific area, it’d minimize the risk faced by players. As things stand? It could lead to a nightmare scenario where one player catches the virus while outside the arena and then passes it to teammates and opponents. If testing isn’t performed quickly or the person is asymptomatic, this could spread the virus exponentially. 

Essentially, the NHL is attempting to win an unwinnable scenario. There’s very little chance of the NHL’s return working despite everyone’s best, good-faith efforts. Without keeping the players, coaches, and others confined to one space, there’s more of a chance that COVID-19 will infiltrate the NHL and lead to another shutdown.