It looks like the National Hockey League will be the first professional sports league to officially return to action — with 24 teams, rather than the usual 16 — competing for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs by early July.
As I understand it, the players will undergo coronavirus testing, and then gradually enter training camps. The teams who were on the cusp of playoff spots when the season was cut short will then play in small round-robin tournaments to see who qualifies for the official post-season. This will be followed by traditional playoff series, played in two hubs, one in the east and one in the west.
As a New York Rangers fan, a team that found itself out of a playoff spot when the season was suspended, I should see little downside to NHL’s plan. My beloved team will be given the chance to compete in the postseason. Even if they lose, they’ll be rewarded in the upcoming draft (the formula for the lottery makes Chaos Theory look like simple addition), with the possibility of nabbing a highly promising young player.
Yet, as much as I crave sports, and hockey in particular, I’m also somewhat torn over the idea. One of allures of professional sports is the continuum — the ability for fans to measure statistics and championships from year to the next. It’s not just about watching players, it’s about watching them play the same number of games, under the same set of rules and conditions.
It’s true that the NHL doesn’t attach the same significance to statistical purity as baseball, but it is not irrelevant to fans. Is it fair for the NHL to add points earned by players in the round-robins to the season totals — where neither top playoff teams nor lottery teams are competing? It is fair for the NHL to disregard the stats of those who help their teams qualify?
I realize the NHL is concerned with generating revenue. I am sympathetic. I want them to play. But how can the league or fans consider the 2019–2020 season unbroken after such a long interval? The NHL broke up on March 12, two-and-a-half months ago. If the league starts up in July, players will have had a longer layoff than they do for a normal offseason.
Some will find the notion trivial, but the league has a responsibility to preserve the integrity of the Stanley Cup. So perhaps the best answer is to put an asterisk next to the winner of the tournament, or better yet, call it the “2020 NHL tournament” rather than the Stanley Cup playoffs.