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Can the NHL pull off the 2020-21 season during COVID-19? The NFL is throwing a few red flags

The NFL has pushed through the pandemic whatever the consequences; the NHL can't do the same.
Roger Goodell cp file photo
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. photo: file photo, CP

The NHL will face a lot of challenges pulling off the upcoming 2020-21 season. Unlike the successfully-staged 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the league won’t be in a quarantined bubble that allows them to entirely avoid the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the 31 NHL teams will be hosting home games in their own arenas.

One of the biggest risks, then, is travel, with the possibility of picking up the coronavirus in one city and carrying to another, potentially sparking an outbreak in a previously contained area. The NHL is aiming to limit travel by keeping all regular season games — as well as the first two-rounds of the playoffs — in division. That means no cross-country trips in the United States.

The in-division format is partially by necessity: the closed border between the U.S. and Canada means divisions with teams from both countries are nigh-impossible. An all-Canadian division, which has been rumoured for some time, will see the Canucks playing against all six of the other teams in the NHL. That means more cross-country travel for the Canucks, but avoidance of hotspots in the U.S. 

The NHL plans on playing 56 games next season. Can they pull it off?

For the answer to that, they could look to another North American league that will complete a full regular season just before the NHL season starts: the National Football League.

NFL's success story?

The NFL committed to a full 17-week regular season despite the pandemic and have held to that commitment. Thus far, they’ve avoided pushing the season to an 18th week, a possibility that has been floated for postponed games. The NFL is giving every indication that they will complete their regular season and start the playoffs on time.

There are some serious caveats to the NFL’s success, however, as they’ve simply powered through multiple challenges instead of taking a safer approach. That’s led to danger on the field, with teams playing after limited practice time, and danger off the field, with COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple teams.

In Week 12, the Denver Broncos had to deal with a nightmare scenario, as one of their backup quarterbacks was diagnosed with COVID-19. Shortly after, the Broncos were forced to quarantine all four of their quarterbacks, as their three other quarterbacks were determined to be close contacts and at high risk of infection.

That meant the Broncos simply did not have a quarterback for their game against the New Orleans Saints. The NFL refused to reschedule the game. As a result, practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton was suddenly called up to the main squad to play quarterback, a position he last played as a backup in 2018 at Wake Forest University before switching to wide receiver.

If this was a movie, this would be the moment when the music swelled and Hinton inspired his teammates with an incredible performance, leading them to an improbable victory. But this is real life and playing quarterback at the NFL level is an incredibly demanding job. Hinton gave it his best effort, but it was never going to be enough.

The Saints slaughtered the Broncos 31-3.

That raises all sorts of questions about competitive balance. Is it fair that the Saints got to play a team without a quarterback? Sure, the Saints were likely to beat the Broncos anyways, but imagine the same scenario in a game between two teams tighter in the standings.

Now picture the same scenario in the NHL. 

Let’s use the Canucks as an example. Imagine Thatcher Demko gets diagnosed with COVID-19 and is put in quarantine. If he was working with Braden Holtby and goaltending coach Ian Clark, both of them would have to be quarantined as close contacts. Who would play in net?

Michael DiPietro would be next on the depth chart, but if he’s playing with the Utica Comets, he wouldn’t be able to quickly cross the border to play, as he would need to quarantine for 14 days first. The idea of having taxi squads that would stay in Canada has been suggested for Canadian teams with American minor league affiliates, but that taxi squads would likely practice with the team. What if DiPietro was also working with Ian Clark on that day and also had to be quarantined?

This honestly isn’t a far-fetched scenario and it would quickly leave a team with no goaltenders. What could the Canucks do? As much as Elias Pettersson might want to put on the goalie gear, that’s not happening. Would they have to turn to an emergency backup like David Ayres with the Carolina Hurricanes last season? 

The difference with Ayres is he wasn’t called upon to play a full game and it was just a one-time occurrence. If a team had to quarantine multiple goaltenders, it could conceivably last for multiple games. Would the NHL be willing to postpone and reschedule games in that situation? Would they be able to?

NFL teams play just one game a week, so a quarantine for a close contact that then tests negative for COVID-19 could conceivably miss just one game. In the NHL, they’ll be playing multiple games per week, particularly with the condensed schedule needed to fit in 56 games.

Beyond that sort of nightmare scenario, the bigger issue is when a team faces a full-on outbreak. 

10-straight days of positive COVID-19 tests

The Baltimore Ravens had ten straight days of positive COVID-19 tests heading into their Week 12 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time, the NFL did postpone the game, pushing it back day-after-day until the Ravens finally had a day with clean tests and the league got the game in on Wednesday, the last possible day it could have been played.

The Ravens had to play after nearly two weeks without a full practice and with a depleted team. They fell to the Steelers 28-24.

The league could have postponed the game between the Ravens and the Steelers to Week 18, but they instead pushed through it. Even if the Ravens had 10 consecutive days of positive COVID-19 tests, that wasn’t justification enough to postpone the game. 

Transfer that to an NHL scenario. The NHL won’t have the wiggle room to push a game back a day at a time. They’ll have to postpone games and move them to another part of the schedule or cancel them outright. In fact, if an NHL team had 10 days of positive tests, that could potentially wipe out six or seven games from a condensed schedule. 

That will make it very difficult for every team to play a 56-game schedule.

Then there are the more serious potential consequences. While it’s unlikely that a young, healthy, athletic professional hockey player will die from COVID-19 — though there are some players in the league with medical conditions that would put them at higher risk — there are other potential consequences. While most that recover from the disease return to normal health, others have dealt with long-term fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and more serious complications like organ damage.

Long-term consequences

In the NFL, there are several players that have gone on the COVID-19 long term.

AJ Dillon of the Green Bay Packers tested positive for COVID-19 over a month ago. He’s expected to miss the rest of the season.

Ryquell Armstead of the Jacksonville Jaguars was hospitalized twice and has had serious respiratory issues. He won’t return this season.  

Tommy Sweeney of the Buffalo Bills was diagnosed with a heart condition, myocarditis, which the Bills confirmed was connected to COVID-19. He’s out for the rest of the season. 

Beyond what happens on the ice, is the NHL prepared to deal with the serious health consequences that could come as a result of an outbreak on an NHL team?

The NHL is intent on playing the 2020-21 season and hockey fans are eager to see their favourite teams and players back in action. The example of the NFL, however, shows there will be some major complications and the NHL will have to be a lot more flexible than the NFL in dealing with them.