Thoughts on the NHL Covid-19 Pause

In the midst of the final stretch of the regular season, the Ottawa Senators faced the Los Angeles Kings on March 11th in L.A., losing 2-3. This would be the last game for the foreseeable future as the NHL announced that its 2020 season would be put on pause the next day. While this decision was necessary, it sent teams and players scrambling to come up with plans. Alongside this, NHL fans who were looking forward to the ever-exciting playoffs were told they would have to wait months before the possibility of a postseason could be considered. As of now, it’s been over two months since the beginning of the pause, and while many fans have forgotten the NHL, the league has undergone an enormous change that is sure to shape its future. With this article, I hope to inform people of these changes as well as provide an update on the future plans of the league.

Before the Pause

Columbus Blue Jackets Goalie Elvis Merzlikins

Before I talk about the pause itself, it’s important to acknowledge how awesome and eventful the 2019-2020 season has been so far. Unlike last year where the regular season standings were dominated by one team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, this year, the top teams in the league are all pretty close to one another.

In the Eastern and Metro divisions, two teams stand out: the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. After losing in the game seven in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Bruins took no time to reassert their prowess on the ice. The B’s currently lead the league in points and are driven by sniper David Pastrnak and star goalie Tuukka Rask. While it was no surprise the Bruins would be a top team in the league this year, many would not have had the Flyers right next to them. After missing the playoffs in 2019 due to poor goaltending and defense, having Carter Hart in net has helped the Flyers shock the NHL by leading the Metro division.

In the Western conference, the Central division is certainly miles ahead of the anemic Pacific division. The Central boasts both the Colorado Avalanche and the 2019 Stanley Cup Champions, the St. Louis Blues. With an offense led by Nathan Mackinnon, the Avs look almost unstoppable. Despite the Avalanche’s stellar squad, they still have the St. Louis Blues to deal with in their division. The Blues started off slow, but by January they found their stride and were looking to make another run for the Cup before the pause.

Alongside these teams, there have been many awe-inspiring stories and events. For instance, the NHL’s first ever lacrosse-style goal (aka the ‘Michigan move’) was performed by Carolina Hurricane Andrei Svechnikov. Another incredible moment was when emergency backup goalie, David Ayres, helped the Hurricanes beat the Maples Leafs when both their goaltenders became injured. Even the rookies this year were sensational. Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar both tore the league up from the blueline for the Canucks and the Avalanche respectively. And the Blue Jackets even brought in a rookie goalie named Elvis (pictured above) who’s playing like a star.

While the 2019-2020 season was shaping up to be a wonderful moment in the league’s history with many close rivalries and feel-good stories, this would soon change with the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s Happened During the Pause?

The Stadium Worker Pay Controversy:

Boston Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs

With the NHL put on pause, owners of teams had to figure out what to do when it came to their finances. For both smaller and larger teams, the financial impact of the pause would surely cause lots of revenue loss. But it is no surprise that most NHL owners were apt to help out people in need during this pandemic. Even a few days prior to the NHL pause, the Nashville Predators helped the needy by allowing them to come to Bridgestone Arena for pizza during the tornado that swept through the area.

But for most NHL owners, the people in need closest to them were the many bartenders, cleaners, security guards, and other employees who worked at NHL stadiums.With the pause, these employees would not be able to work, leaving many struggling financially. Given this, most NHL teams stepped in to help out these employees by paying them their full wages despite not having any games to work. Even most of the smaller market teams, like the Arizona Coyotes and the Florida Panthers, were able to compensate their workers.

But there were two teams that were quite stubborn in not helping their workers: the Buffalo Sabres and the Boston Bruins. Both NHL and NFL fans will tell you that Terry Pegula, who owns both the Sabres and the Bills, is not among the top owners in either league. Often making moves to cut costs, Pegula has rarely managed to put together competent and competitive rosters for Sabres and Bills fans. Thus, it wasn’t really surprising that Pegula would refuse to compensate his workers.

On the other hand, many were shocked that the Boston Bruins, an original six team, would be so stubborn in paying their workers, granted, that’s if you weren’t a Bruins fan. Bruins fans knew all along that their owner, Jeremy Jacobs, was no stranger to cost cutting. In fact, earlier this year, Jacobs decided to add more rows of seats at the TD Garden, allowing the team to sell more tickets at the expense of having no leg room. Given Jacobs’s aptitude to choose financial gain over the enjoyment of the fans, Bruins supporters were not surprised when Jacobs refused to pay his employees during the pause. This decision was completely outrageous as the Bruins are one of the top five richest NHL teams and makes an estimated $226million in revenue each year. Even the notorious cheapskate owner of the Ottawa Senators, Eugene Melnyk, didn’t hesitate to pay his workers. This was a complete embarrassment for the team, leading RW Brad Marchand to start a gofundme for workers at the TD Garden.

After pressure from NHL fans, Pegula and Jacobs eventually backed down and paid their workers for the cancelled games. Yet, the actions of these owners, who are both billionaires, should not be forgotten and should be a reminder that poor and stingy conduct has no place in the NHL.

Leipsic on Waivers:

Former Washington Capital Brendan Leipsic (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Speaking about poor conduct, I must mention the situation with Brendan Leipsic (pictured above), the now former left-wing for the Washington Capitals. Since he joined the league in 2015, Leipsic has played for the Maple Leafs, Golden Knights, Canucks, Kings, and Capitals, mainly as a fourth liner. Yet, it seems like Leipsic’s short NHL career has come to a full stop during the NHL pause.

In early May, group text messages were leaked, a few of which included Brendan Leipsic. In these group chats, Leipsic disparaged the appearances of Canucks forward Tanner Pearson’s wife as well as the girlfriend of Oilers forward Connor McDavid, who most consider to be the best player in the NHL. Furthermore, Leipsic referred to another woman, not associated with any NHLer in particular, as a ‘pig’ and mocked her weight. Alongside these misogynistic comments, Leipsic also managed to trash-talk his linemates, calling Garnett Hathaway and Nic Dowd ‘losers.’ Given these inexcusable comments, Leipsic was put on waivers by the Capitals in order to terminate his contract.

This event serves as further evidence that the locker room situation in the NHL is indeed very toxic. Earlier this year, allegations that the fired Maple Leafs coach, Mike Babcock, had treated rookies poorly came out. After these allegations came out, more players spoke up about Calgary Flames head coach, Bill Peters, making racist remarks during jobs with previous teams. Peters stepped down and the NHL has had to implement programs and committees to deal with racism in the league because of this. This controversy with Leipsic is surely an indicator that it is not only coaches that contribute to the toxicity of the NHL locker room, but also the players themselves. Hopefully going forward, players and coaches will show more respect to everyone in the NHL community and realize that their private actions often become public in this day in age.

AHL Cancels Season:

While the NHL season has only been put on pause as far as we know, the AHL season was recently cancelled on May 11th. In March, the AHL suspended its season following the actions of the NHL. During this pause, the AHL hoped to be able to return to play. Yet, these hopes were dashed as organizing a return to play became impossible for the league to accomplish.

The AHL, being a farm league for the NHL, does not have the financial support nor the logistics to organize the resumption of their season. With players from all over the world, organizing their return to their teams would be impossible. Likewise, finding a solution that would limit the spread of the virus, like moving the league to one location and playing with no fans, would be extremely difficult financially and logistically. With these issues, the AHL’s decision sadly makes sense.

This decision to cancel its season has implications not particularly for the NHL, but rather the other minor leagues such as the G-League or minor league baseball. The XFL, a newly created football league that accumulated a decent following this year, completely folded during the pandemic. With the cancellation of the AHL season and the end of the XFL, other lesser sports leagues might have to face facts and cancel their seasons as well.

Remembering Colby Cave:

Colby Cave playing for the Edmonton Oilers

If all the news during the pause wasn’t bad enough, the NHL lost Colby Cave (pictured above) who was playing on the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to the pause, Cave, at 25 years old, was in the prime of his career and playing for an Oilers team that was looking to make a playoff run. Yet, during the pause, Colby was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with a colloid cyst which was causing bleeding in his brain. This freak medical issue prompted him to be airlifted to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto where he was put in a medically induced coma. Only a few days later, Colby passed away, leaving his family and wife, who he recently married, in shock and disbelief.

While the pandemic prevented his family and friends from being with him as he fought off this tragic illness, Colby received an outpouring of love and support from social media. Colby will always be remembered by fans as that quick forward on the fourth line who dished out heavy hits on opponents. For coaches and teammates, he will be remembered as a hard worker as well as a friend who would always be there for them, no matter if he was playing in the NHL or AHL. Lastly, Colby will be remembered as a loving family-member and husband. This tragic death was such a surprise to everyone and I am sure Colby will not be forgotten by the NHL community.

Going Forward

While much of the news during the NHL pause was negative, in the future I expect there to be positive news. Specifically, the NHL has held talks about resuming the season in the future as well as created plans for the entry draft in early June.

NHL Draft:

LW Alexis Lafrenire playing for the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL

In April, the NFL held its draft, amassing a total of 55million viewers over the three day span, all tuning in to their favorite teams picking future stars. The success of the draft has prompted commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL front office to consider moving the draft to early June.

Because the NHL paused their season with teams only playing around 68 to 71 games out of the normally 82 game regular season, they will have to devise a new system to determine the odds of the draft lottery. What the NHL came up with is to have points per game used to determine the odds. Thus, the Detroit Redwings will have the highest chance of landing that number one pick, followed by the Ottawa Senators, and then the Ottawa Senators again(!) as they received the San Jose Sharks’ pick in a trade for defenseman Erik Karlsson last season. With this, teams are also allowed to negotiate playoff conditional picks with each other as many teams made trades in which they owe other teams picks if they made it to a certain round in the playoffs.

If the draft does happen soon, which it seems like it will according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, it will surely be an exciting event. The talent available in the 2020 draft class is sky high. The predicted number one selection, LW Alexis Lafreniere (pictured above), possesses Patrick Kane or Nikita Kucherov levels of skill. Alongside him, C Quinton Byfield, who stands at 6’3” and 214lb, and C Tim Stutzle, who played against men in the German league at 17 years of age, are no consolation prizes to be sad about. With the fact that the Ottawa Senators possess two first round picks that stand a good chance at swiping these franchise-changing players, this draft is sure to be exciting. Alongside this, the rest of the top ten prospects seem to all possess high levels of talent, making teams very likely to trade up or down depending on how the draft board turns out. With not much in the way of sports entertainment for the past few months, I think having the draft soon is great for fans and should be a success for the NHL.

Plans for Reopening:

Vancouver is a potential hub-city for the NHL

With many countries and states lower restrictions concerning Covid-19, talks about pro sports returning have begun. This includes the NHL as for the past month or so, rumors and tidbits of information have circulated. Yet, no definite plan for reopening nor even confirmation that the 2020 season will happen have been announced by the NHL front office. Yet, this is most likely going to change.

It is quite likely that the NHL will make an announcement of its plans for the playoffs this upcoming week. The front office sent a memo around to teams saying that they intend to resume the 2019-2020 season in some fashion, most likely having some sort of playoff. While there won’t be packed stadiums with roaring fans this time around, there hasn’t been a better moment for some playoff hockey. This will be difficult though as teams are scattered over North America where travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders vary by state, giving advantages to certain teams who are able to practice earlier. To accommodate an early start to the playoffs considering the lost regular season games, many have speculated that the playoffs might include 24 teams instead of 16. These teams would be housed in four hub-cities to prevent excessive travel and Vancouver and Edmonton have already talked with the NHL about being two of these hub-cities.

While the coronavirus pause has generally produced bad news for the NHL, these past few weeks have felt much more hopeful. It seems certain that the NHL draft will happen in the next month. Alongside this, it is very likely that the NHL has finalized its plans for resuming hockey and will have the playoffs for us, albeit a little later than normal. With the NHL front office making significant progress on planning for the future, fans will once again be able to focus on the exciting rivalries and unpredictability of glorious playoff hockey, making our long wait worthwhile.

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