Stanley Cup 2020: Pro sport as alternate universe

Gary Bettman (Canadian Press – Mary Altaffer photo)


So, they’re really doing it.

On August 1—a time of year when most players are on golf courses, water skis, or houseboats, enjoying a final month of freedom before the next season’s training camp—twenty-four of the National Hockey League’s thirty-one teams will begin competing for the 2020 Stanley Cup. At least, that’s the plan until the realities of a global pandemic take over.

Yes, at a time when U.S. deaths from COVID-19 are pushing toward the 140,000 mark, and daily new infection rates are exceeding 60,000, the NHL is following through with a Cup tournament that should have been cancelled the moment it suspended regular season play on March 12, a day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

After several weeks of negotiations, the league and the NHL Players Association on Friday ratified a multi-layered deal that includes a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement, a temporarily frozen salary cap, and participation in the next two winter Olympic Games. The return to play component calls for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs to occur in the two “hub” cities of Edmonton (Western Conference) and Toronto (Eastern Conference), with the Cup final in Edmonton.

Will I be watching? Of course. How could I not tune in for this most surreal of events: a high summer Stanley Cup, its games played in empty arenas by players who, for their own safety, will not be allowed to see their families unless or until their team makes it to the conference final? How could I not be fascinated by an NHL playoff tournament held in only two Canadian cities because the prospect of holding games in the United States was deemed too great a public health risk? Yes, it will be truly historic in hockey terms. But it will also be hard to observe without a ghoulish sense of dread, a sado-voyeurism like that surrounding cock fights, “Rollerball,” or gladiatorial games in ancient Rome: as a form of spectacle that cannot be witnessed in good conscience.

Elias Pettersson (NHLI via Getty Images – Jeff Vinnick photo)

Of course, I’d love to see my Vancouver Canucks beat the Minnesota Wild in their qualifying “play-in” series (for teams that had not guaranteed their play-off position when the regular season was suspended) and move on to the proper tournament. But apart from the usual injuries of the game, I shouldn’t have to worry about their health as they pursue hockey’s holy grail. And those games will be clouded by doubts and fear: at least twenty-six NHL players had tested positive for COVID-19 by the end of June, including superstar Auston Matthews of the Eastern hub city host Toronto Maple Leafs. And many other players had expressed concern about potential risks. Losing the draft lottery is one thing. But who wants to lose the COVID lottery?

According to Sportsnet reporter Eric Engels, who spoke with several players off the record last month, an estimated 75 per cent did not want to return to play this summer but are doing it anyway. “Though they’re concerned with financial pitfalls of that decision, they’re more concerned about risking contracting the virus/serious injury before cramming in the 20/21 season,” Engels Tweeted on June 30.

As of this writing, seven players had opted out of Stanley Cup play. (The opting out deadline is Monday at 5 p.m. EST.) You can hardly blame them. It’s one thing to ensure physical distancing for each team’s maximum of 50 personnel, including players, coaches and staff, off the ice while they circulate within their designated hub city. (And that’s assuming it’s possible to create a COVID-free “bubble” of 600 people from the dozen NHL teams playing in each hub—assuming, again, that everyone passes the 14-day quarantine.) Imposing the same principle at the rink is something else.

Auston Matthews (Canadian Press photo)

In their Saturday Zoom call with the NHLPA’s Donald Fehr and Matthieu Schneider, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly, insisted the league is following scientific protocols around COVID-19 and taking all medical advice seriously—even in their assumption that competing teams can circulate within the same “bubble.” I sure hope they’re right because, when the Canucks first meet the Wild on August 2, Wild defensemen are unlikely—for the sake of maintaining physical distance—to let Elias Petterson just waltz around them for a shot on goal without trying to stop him. When the Calgary Flames meet the Winnipeg Jets, Matthew Tkachuk is not going to avoid crashing the net just to spare Connor Hellebuyck from his droplets. A league that failed in its first century to ban fighting, and which has only belatedly begun punishing hits to the head, is not going to magically transform all its players into Lady Byng candidates for the larger, public good of containing a deadly virus.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hockey as much as anyone and play it, too. (Until recreational hockey was cancelled on March 13, I relished the prospect of skating in my own playoff games as a plodding beer league forward.) But I always understood the game to be one of life’s entertainments and nothing more, a distraction from the daily pressures of life in normal times. So when life as we know it changed forever in mid-March, priorities did, too: almost overnight, my interest in the NHL and its daily news cycle completely evaporated.

As I phrased it in a bit of verse I posted on my blog: I used to check the standings of the NHL each day/Now I check infection rates to only hope and pray. My assumption was that it’s everyone’s responsibility to help flatten the curve—including pro sports, its billionaire owners, and its millionaire athletes. So what does it mean, that both the NHL and the players association are perfectly willing to cancel games—or entire seasons—when it comes to a labour dispute but, during a global pandemic when lives are at stake, will move mountains to get a deal done and keep the money flowing?

Donald Fehr (Associated Press – Gene J. Puskar photo)