There are few good ideas in the pandemic. The most you can muster is, “Well, I guess that’s the best they can do.” The urge to try and have anything normal is an understandable one, it’s just there are so very many limits to how to get to that safely, so we either can’t have them or just ignore the limits completely. Neither are a suitable way to go about things. .
I’ll admit to relief that a seemingly normal NHL season would take place this fall after the abbreviated, soundstage-like version of last year. It never felt right, and only reminded everyone of what we didn’t have. I don’t know if the sight of hockey starting in the middle of October as usual with crowds was something I would be hoping to be a harbinger of normality within touching distance, or just a distraction from everything whenever I tuned it. It hasn’t really been either. And the Olympics are the next bell to toll in how far we still have to go, so it seems.
Reports bubbled over the weekend, while the NHL was having its Governors Meeting, that players were feeling pretty apprehensive about going to China in February. The NHL itself has never been thrilled with the idea, and they’ve been reserved this time, saying it’s the players’ deal, while making it clear they still don’t think it’s a good idea. Which it isn’t.
Gary Bettman himself was careful to point out it’s still up to the players, and that the owners agreed to let it be the players’ decision in the last CBA negotiations (which the owners used to basically get everything else they wanted), but also made it clear that he and the owners aren’t partial to going. It all sounded like a concerned parent trying to urge their child to come to the right conclusion on their own without having to be the bad guy about going to spring break alone or something. “Well, you’re a grown-up now, so it’s up to YOU, and if YOU think it’s a good idea then YOU can do it. But do YOU really think it’s a good idea?”
The main concern is the possible quarantine for any players that test positive that could last up to five weeks in Beijing. This isn’t for sure yet, and it’s not clear whether a player who tests positive could be shuttled out of China, but the players are still waiting on that. Current protocols in China call for a 3-5 week quarantine. Whether that applies to Olympians, we are yet to find out.
You can see the problem here. Should a player test positive in the last week of the tourney, say before the semifinals, they could miss a month or more of NHL action while waiting to return, while also being marooned thousands of miles from home. This clearly does not appeal to a large swath of players, who are beginning to wonder if this is all worth it.
It’s not the only issue. Another is that the NHL is absolved of paying any player who misses time for testing positive and quarantining and missing NHL games. So not only could a player possibly be stuck in China for weeks and missing games back home, they also wouldn’t be paid for that privilege. The International Ice Hockey Federation has a $5 million fund to reimburse any players this may happen to, but there seems to be no answer if that fund runs out and there are too many players to cover. You’ll be shocked to hear that NHL owners aren’t exactly sprinting to dive on that live grenade for players.
This week is when the NHL players will get a clearer idea of what the exact protocols are for the Olympics, as they’ll get a handbook from the IOC and IIHF about what life in Beijing will look like.. And what they won’t talk about is how their party will be affected. Don’t be fooled. While playing in the tournament and representing their countries and winning a gold medal is the biggest part of the appeal for players, the fun and “opportunities” are a huge draw for players as well. You don’t need me to tell you what life is like inside the Olympic Village. And when you’re an NHL player there, you’re just about the biggest celebrity there with none of the TMZ-ing that star athletes get at home but usually passes hockey players by. That’s a giant part of the appeal for players. If everyone is going to be locked up in their dorms and only let out for practice and games, the appeal deflates like a balloon.
The NHL does have a half-hammer on this, even if they’ve been clear to point out it’s still up to the players. That is if the NHL schedule is riven with postponements due to COVID, the owners and players can agree that they need the Olympic break to make up games. That trying to pack in many games in the last two months of the season is simply untenable.
Wouldn’t you know, Calgary’s game in Chicago tonight was just postponed because of positive tests amongst the Flames. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’...
That’s not as cut and dried as it seems either, as some teams have booked their arenas during the break for other things. Gotta chase that revenue lost, after all. So that will take some scheduling aerobics should it come to pass. But what’s the threshold on that? The Islanders have some games to make up. The Flames will now. No one’s got a definite number of teams or games that would be too much to make up without using that gap in February.
The logistics of the NHL going to the Olympics has always been a nightmare, and even more so for games that will be on at 3 a.m. The NHL has never really gotten a boost from these, aside from maybe a couple months in 2010. Still, it would be sad for an entire generation of players to miss out on the Olympics, which would happen if there’s a full 12 years between the NHL players going.
(This is where I would suggest both the players and owners go all in on resuscitating The World Cup in the summer which can and should be a better quality tournament with rested players, played in North America, where both the owners and players can profit, but both sides have fucked that thing over to the point where it’s probably permanently dead).
But this is a bigger mess than normal, and it sounds like it’s going to become too much of one to go through with.