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Are Neutral Site Games the Answer for the NHL?

The NHL continues to sit idle, as do all of the major sports leagues around the world, and an end to this hiatus does not feel like it’s coming any time soon. The NHL has been saying since day one that its goal is to hand out the Stanley Cup this season but as the days go by, it’s starting to feel less and less realistic. 

Recently, the idea of playing neutral site games has been thrown around. Take the sixteen playoff teams, or maybe a few more, and find two to four locations where they could safely isolate while playing out the playoffs. Some are saying that this might be the only way that we can finish off the 2019/20 season and that the league should be prepared to do it. I disagree. Here’s why:

THE RISK OF AN OUTBREAK

The main reason why the NHL would do this is so that they could make money, let’s not kid ourselves. The main reason this whole thing could fall apart is because of an outbreak of the virus in one of the host cities. 

Let’s say that the league has four host cities operating and after two weeks of games, one staff member or player on one team ends up contracting the virus. Would the league just suspend that one team? They would have to be put into isolation. That might require a whole cluster of teams to have to shut down again.

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Does it really make sense for the league to spend all the money needed to fly teams out, find places for them to live and set up shop for potentially two months only to potentially have it shut down within two weeks? 

EMPTY STADIUMS & MOVING PLAYERS

I know it’s their jobs and they get paid very well to do them, but you are asking a lot out of the players to pack up their stuff and move to a neutral site for potentially a few months, assuming that’s how long it would take to wrap up the playoffs.

You’re asking them to move away from their families just to finish out the season. I’m sure there are plenty of players who wouldn’t have a problem with this at all and would gladly head to a city for a few months if it means a chance at winning the Stanley Cup, but there would be lots of players who wouldn’t be okay with it. It could create a divide in the NHLPA and honestly, I think the NHL would have a tough time trying to sell the players on it.

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I know some of you will say “oh, they’re millionaires. They can leave their families for a few months,” but I think that’s beside the point. It’s going to be difficult to get the players to buy into this. Just hours after the story about MLB’s potential plan was released, players already voiced their opinions.

I would imagine there are plenty of NHLers that share the same view.

THE ASTERISKS

These games would likely be played in front of no fans, potentially in smaller cities, and in the middle of the summer. I understand why people want to see hockey return and I can see why the NHL wants to get the game back and hand out a Stanley Cup, you can’t argue that there will be an asterisk next to whoever the Champion is this season. It just won’t feel the same. 

Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but I just don’t know how emotionally involved the players will get while playing in front of an empty stadium. Will an overtime winner feel the same when there’s no one in the crowd to react?

Will there be the same passion and excitement in the game compared to past playoffs? I just don’t see that happening. The league wants to hand out the Stanley Cup, but do they really want to have it hoisted in front of an empty arena?

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THE POSITIVES

Mar 3, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) and goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) and the Oilers celebrate the win over the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Sports gives us an escape and a distraction from regular life and right now society could really use a distraction. That’s the biggest positive about the idea of games returning sooner rather than later.

There’s also the financial aspect, which the NHL obviously considers a top priority. The league wants to recover as much revenue as possible and making sure that their TV partners are happy is a big part of that. They won’t get any gate revenue, but they won’t lose any more TV revenue and that’s huge. That also impacts the players because of things like escrow and the salary cap. There are major financial benefits to the league returning.

If the NHL is one of the first leagues to return, it could also be a great chance to grow the game south of the border. There would be way more eyes on the league if it returns before the other three major sports leagues.

MY FINAL TAKE

The NHL wants to salvage as much revenue as they can and fans around the continent want to see the sport return, but is forcing it back with neutral site games and no fans truly a good idea? I’m far from sold on it.

I miss sitting on my couch with a cold beer and watching an Oilers game. Or NFL on Sundays. Or a Blue Jays game on a Saturday afternoon. I miss it all and I want it back, but the health of society has to come first. I want sports back, but I want it to return the right way and when it’s safe to do so. Rushing back a significantly altered version of the sport that puts people’s health at risk just isn’t the right thing to do.