If you wanted a clearer statement about the difference between the NBA and the NHL, you can’t do much better than comparing the leagues’ contingency plans for finishing their seasons over the summer: The NBA has floated stationing everyone in Las Vegas, while the NHL mulls shipping its entire operation to North Dakota.
NBA: Glitz, glamor, lights, dreams, clubs, sex, money, Sin City.
NHL: Barren wasteland.
Although maybe at the time these moves happen, if they do happen, Vegas and Grand Forks won’t look all that different thanks to the shutdown.
You have to give the NHL’s plan this — no matter the announcements and warnings made beforehand, people would still flock to Vegas just to be around an NBA tournament setting. No one’s going to Grand Forks. Perhaps that’s the genius of it? Maybe Gary Bettman is playing four-dimensional chess? Straws being grabbed.
But that’s the plan currently being discussed among NHL teams. They would finish their regular seasons and play their playoffs in one locale, just like the NBA and MLB are discussing. Behind closed doors.
If you can turn your brain off for a second — which is how most of America operates full-time anyway — you can start to see reasons why the NHL might consider this.
One, as it is likely that the season and playoffs will only be able to be completed deep into the summer, North Dakota’s summer climate would be about as manageable as it gets for an ice surface that’s going to have to host multiple games for weeks straight. Playoff games held in Tampa in August, for instance, would have barely qualified as suitable or even fair. Games very well may have been more akin to water polo.
Secondly, North Dakota currently has the country’s third-lowest coronavirus infection rate (just 237 cases as of this publication), and it is sparsely populated — the third fewest residents in the union, in fact. Which means that somewhere down the line, if the powers that be can get their own thumbs out of their ass (unlikely) and develop a quickly-resolved test and get it mass-distributed, North Dakota would provide just about as controlled an environment as you can have. It wouldn’t be perfect and could still prove highly dangerous. But we’re talking about weeks and likely a couple months down the road here, which could look like anything.
Third, Grand Forks in particular is pretty remote. It’s a tough trip for anyone who doesn’t have to to get there, and it comes with an NHL-quality facility that the University of North Dakota calls home.
Ok, now the problems.
First, just because North Dakota is sparsely populated doesn’t mean it’s equipped medically to deal with an influx of visitors. Rural medical facilities are some of the most vulnerable we have. An invasion of players, staff, and media and the risk that brings could very well be something that no location in that area can handle. So, again, this is all contingent on just how everything — the virus, tests, treatment — develop over the coming weeks. How dealing with even just hundreds of occupants for this would affect that, no one can really know. And if you don’t know, you can’t really go through with it.
Second, just because Grand Forks has one arena that would work, that’s not enough. Just to run the playoffs in one location, you’re talking about running four games per day for two straight weeks in the first round, and then two games a day for up to another two weeks. That’s a stress on everything. And that doesn’t include how the NHL would finish its regular season in just one place.
Perhaps the NHL could convert the field North Dakota football team uses, the Alerus Center, into a hockey site, but that would involve bringing even more crew to the city, which comes with more risk. And that would take weeks of prep, as the Winter Classic sites always do, and who knows when that can start.
But if you dare to dream — and why shouldn’t you at this point as we live in this Wonka dystopia — with no spectators, you could conceivably cram two sheets of ice onto a football space, but I’ll leave it there before I completely lose my senses.
That’s about as good as you can do.
Other sites that are barely “close by” would include Duluth, Minnesota. But that involves roping in another state and town with their own concerns and measures into this brain explosion, and that’s no small hurdle. Plus, Duluth is four hours away.
Winnipeg is closer, with an actual NHL arena. But along with the even greater challenge of crossing the border and figuring out Canadian regulations and measures, obviously everything would have to be bussed up to Winnipeg, because Winnipeg doesn’t have an airport.
There’s little point in spilling too much emotion into this, as these are merely contingency plans. These are ideas, or proposals, nowhere near close to being enacted. Perhaps the NHL let this get out to the media to float it as a trial balloon. But we’re weeks away from even outlining what shape the coronavirus and its effects will take long term. And until that happens, all any league will have is plans or contingencies.
And the amount of wailing from the hockey press of having to spend weeks in North Dakota will surely kill us all.