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'We were able to power through': Bettman reflects on NHL shutdown a year later

Gary Bettman had just returned home when he got a call telling him to turn on his TV.

Gary Bettman had just returned home when he got a call telling him to turn on his TV.

The NBA had a player test positive for COVID-19 minutes before the start of a game — inside an arena packed with fans — that would ultimately force the league's postponement. 

It was March 11, 2020, and the NHL's commissioner knew there was only one move to make.

"They instantaneously were in shutdown mode," Bettman said of the NBA. "We didn't want to be in that situation. We didn't want a building full of people. We wanted to be a little proactive. 

"It was clear that sooner or later we were going to have a positive test."

Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly convened the league's board of governors the following day before announcing the season would be suspended amid the widening pandemic that was only just starting to lap the shores of North America.

"It's one of those nights or series of days that are in some respects a blur," Daly recalled. "But (in) some respects a very vivid recollection."

Bettman and his right-hand man reflected Thursday on a year like no other — one that has caused unimaginable pain around the world — that started with the league's shutdown.

No one knew exactly how long the 2019-20 season would be on ice at the time, but the commissioner said it was clear the situation was already dire.

"All you had to do was see the rate of positivity and the climbing death rate to understand that this was getting more and more serious," said Bettman, who trumpeted the collaboration with the NHL Players' Association throughout the last 12 months. "Even today ... it's almost hard to believe we've all been at this for a year.

"And we're still not done."

The NHL completed last season inside tightly controlled bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, keeping the novel coronavirus at bay without a single positive test and ultimately awarding the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Before that, the league and the NHLPA had to agree to an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement in order to deal with the pandemic's startling economic realities with no fans in buildings, and to long lists of health and safety guidelines.

The NHL started its 2020-21 season in mid-January with a 56-game schedule, empty buildings and restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States.

That last point precipitated the creation of the North Division for the league's seven Canadian teams and the realignment of the league's other 24 clubs to reduce travel in hopes of minimizing the spread of COVID-19.

But in the absence of bubbles, the virus presented significant challenges even before the puck was dropped.

It got to a point where in mid-February close to 60 names appeared on the list of players unable to participate due to protocols, with five teams completely shut down and dozens of games rescheduled in the U.S.

"We had a very difficult couple of weeks," Daly said. "It's not really the one or two or handful of positives (tests), it's when you're in (a) situation where there's been an outbreak on a particular team.

"What has been confirmed through this process is we're dealing with a very, very contagious virus — easily transmissible if people aren't taking appropriate precautions."

The league upped a number of its rules for players and team personnel, basically matching the road protocols that kept them in hotels or arenas when they were in their home markets.

No more trips to the grocery store, picking kids up from school or other errands were allowed.

As a result, the number of names on the COVID-19 protocol list had dropped to four as of Wednesday.

"I give the (NHLPA) and the players a lot of credit as accepting that as necessary," Daly said.

On the business side, the NHL and ESPN negotiated a new partial U.S. broadcast deal announced Wednesday that will see The Walt Disney Company pay a little over US$2.8 billion over the next seven seasons for an average of $410 million per year. That's a significant bump from the league's last U.S. media rights deal with NBC — a 10-year pact worth a total of $2 billion — with more properties still open for bidding.

The league currently has 13 teams allowing at least some fans into arenas south of the border, with four more on the horizon. 

It seems unlikely that will be that case in Canada in the coming months, but Daly said it's too early to tell if the North Division champion will have to relocate to the U.S. for the conference finals, which are scheduled to begin sometime in mid-June, due to travel restrictions and a slower vaccine rollout north of the border.

"It's been a very co-operative and transparent relationship from the start," Daly said of the league's work with the federal and provincial governments. "We don't always get the answer we necessarily want, but we've had a very responsive relationship."

Daly added there's still time before a decision has to be made, while Bettman pointed out the league waited until the last possible moment to choose Toronto and Edmonton as its bubble locations.

"This isn't the first time we've had to work through a process with various elements of the Canadian government," Daly said. "We'll get an answer when we get an answer."

And that's the kind of patience needed over the last year.

"We were able to power through," Bettman said. "If anybody tells you they had all the answers going in, they're kidding you."

The NHL finished its 2019-20 season, is on course to complete the current campaign, and confident 2021-22 will be as close to normal as possible when the league welcomes the Seattle Kraken as its 32nd franchise.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," Bettman said. "But this isn't the time to let our guard down or reduce our vigilance. 

"In some respects the year has gone in a blink of an eye ... and in some respects it has seemed (like) forever."


Daly said the 2021 draft "more likely than not" will still be held July 23-24 despite no "shortage of opinions." There had been talk of pushing proceedings back because of the challenges development circuits like the Canadian Hockey League have experienced just getting games in, while scouts have also been unable to get live looks at this year's draft class. "It's certainly an imperfect situation," Daly said. "But we've been dealing with imperfect situations." 


While many Canadian hockey fans have enjoyed the heated rivalries, the North Division will only be around as long as needed. Bettman said the league will return to its regular divisional formats when restrictions allow, with Arizona moving to the Central and Seattle joining the Pacific. He added internal NHL polling suggests two-thirds of fans prefer the usual setup. "We did what we had to do this year," Bettman said. "We had no choice."


One important aspect of the CBA extension was a return to the Olympics. Daly said discussions with the NHLPA are ongoing with what both sides would like to see in a deal with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation. But the IOC currently has its hands full with getting ready for Tokyo this summer. "It's a working process," Daly said. "But I don't have much progress to report."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press