In case you’re thinking that life is going to get back to normal anytime soon, minor league hockey has provided the first reminder that it’s absolutely not.
The ECHL announced on Friday morning that its 2020-21 season will open on Dec. 11, with 13 of the teams getting underway with what will be, for them, a 72-game season. The other half of the league — hockey’s equivalent of Double-A baseball — will play a 62-game season that opens on Jan. 15, with standings based on winning percentage to accommodate for the split schedule.
Well, the other half of the league except for one team, because there’s also a team that already knows it will play zero games. The Atlanta Gladiators, the Boston Bruins’ affiliate, opted out of playing in 2020-21, instead returning to action in 2021-22.
“In accordance with state and local COVID-19 recommendations, the Infinite Energy Arena has implemented a 25% capacity limit on all events with stringent social distancing,” the Gladiators said in a statement. “As a business rooted in ticket and sponsorship revenue, such a capacity reduction greatly hinders the team’s ability to conduct regular business. This has forced the suspension.”
The league said that all Atlanta players will be free agents, but even the plan announced for the teams that will play seems, let’s just say, ambitious.
The 13 teams that are penciled in for a December drop of the puck are Allen (Texas), Florida, Greenville (S.C.), Indy, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Orlando, Rapid City (S.D.), South Carolina, Tulsa, Utah, Wheeling (W.V.), and Wichita.
Of the states where those teams play, the only one that’s even close to moving in the right direction on coronavirus is West Virginia, while there are major spikes happening in Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah.
“The ECHL is excited to be able to confirm the beginning of the 2020-21 season by working with our local health officials and the [Professional Hockey Players’ Association] to develop protocols for the safe return of our players, fans, and employees,” ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said in the statement announcing the league’s plan.
“Local health officials” is a key phrase there, because the local governments in a lot of these places have been less than responsible, which is why we are where we are. Health officials, specifically, might be another story, but if localities do restrict arena capacities — as they should for cold, indoor facilities — you can easily see how it would lead to teams needing to follow the Gladiators’ lead and bow out of the season in order to remain a viable business in 2021-22 and beyond.
There’s also the issue of the ECHL’s two Canadian teams, Brampton (Ontario) and Newfoundland, given that border restrictions remain in place.
But now we have a date for at least some of the ECHL to return to action, which means the question becomes whether the pandemic really allows it to happen — and that’s a question which, seven months after COVID-19 shut down sports in North America in the first place, we still can’t truly answer.
And if that’s the case for the ECHL, it means there’s still no way to know whether the NHL will be able to open as it hopes on Jan. 1, or what will happen with the NBA’s next season, or even the start of baseball spring training. But what we do know, with the Atlanta Gladiators not playing, is that COVID-19’s impact on sports is sure to extend into 2021.