Over the past few days, the news has been coming hot and heavy that intense discussions are happening that will lead to a decision about how to restart the 2019-20 NHL season. The NHL’s front office, led by Gary Bettman, has insisted – and there’s no reason to doubt it – that the NHL wants and is committed to (if possible) completing the season. How that will look is being discussed, but the talk won’t quit.
In fact, this morning (May 19), the NHL reported that Commissioner Bettman and his committees of people are looking at “probably eight or nine different places” that would be able to host “a dozen or so teams in one location.”
Bettman noted that there’s no timetable and that specific issues such as border crossings and quarantines need to be resolved; still, there’s talk. More and more, from what I read, the conversation has moved towards extending the 2019-20 season further into the summer and moving the start of the 2020-21 season into much later in the calendar year.
However, those issues are only part of the problem. The way that the NHL game has evolved to be played has become so common to both NHL fans and players that making changes would be difficult. It would be sort of like taking “flopping” (when a player tries to trick a referee into believing he’s been fouled, interfered with, injured as a way to draw a penalty) out of professional soccer. That’s just the game.
How Will COVID-19 Reshape the Game On-Ice?
TSN’s Ryan Rishaug has already speculated on a few alterations that might come as rule changes the NHL will potentially implement. From helmets to faceoffs, coaches isolating on the bench and fighting being all-but completely removed, the game will undoubtedly look different. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly noted that the league will follow whatever guidelines and recommendations they are given by health professionals.
What about elements of the game players and fans simply take for granted: the little things that make hockey, well hockey?
Change #1: No Hugging After a Goal
For example, after a goal – would mass team hugs be penalized? Unless you’ve scored the one goal in a 7-1 loss, you can expect you’ll be getting rushed by your teammates when you score. It’s been the way hockey players celebrate for decades. Will the NHL simply say, ‘Sorry, you’ll just have to tell each other from afar that you’ve done good.’?
Change #2: No Head-Tapping of Your Goalie’s Mask After the Final Buzzer
Could there even be a line up of teammates head-tapping the goalie’s facemask at the end of a victory?
Perhaps no player works harder than a team’s goaltender. Even in a loss, the rest of the roster shows the respect a netminder should be given through the display of a helmet tap. I suppose hockey stick taps on the pads would work, but how hard will it be to have that new tradition kick in?
Change #3: No Scrums After a Whistle
Don’t push and shove if your goalie has his crease crowded. If you don’t like a hit (assuming hits will be legal) you can’t get into a pushing contest with another player. If another player has words for you, don’t even think about laying a hand on them. What if you’re standing up for another teammate that isn’t as scrappy as you? You certainly can’t step in.
Change #4: No Spitting On the Ice
Whether it’s Gatorade on the bench or a quick spit on the ice, you can bet officials will be told to watch for it. A two-minute penalty for not finishing your water sounds a bit excessive, no? Or, if you’re a player who’s nervous about catching COVID-19, you would be wise to track where every other player has spit on the ice – even your own teammates. No one can be trusted. It’s your saliva against the world.
Change #5: No Coaches Talking to Players During Timeouts
Coaches could draw plays on their drawing boards or yell to another player down the bench but it might be hard to see a quick tap on the shoulder or a lean over by a coach for a one-on-one conversation in the new NHL. If you want a timeout, do you have to spread your players down the ice with some distance between them? How far? Will you have to set up a walkie-talkie conference?
So, What’s the Skinny?
The game simply needs to look completely different for the sake of safety. Thus, long-time patterns of player behavior would need to be changed. So much of the way the game is played on the ice just goes flies out the window because of the safety precautions.
And, we haven’t even started. Would the players’ bench set-up need to change? How would line changes happen on the fly? How is the use of water bottles going to work?
Although in this post we’ve obviously played around with ideas about how long-time traditions might be changed in a world of COVID-19, the truth is it isn’t really that funny to be playing a game where you feel your life might be threatened.
COVID-19 is a scary thing, and we would all do well to recognize it and prepare to be as careful as possible. What that might look like on ice is still up in the air – so to speak.
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