Nothing is perfect. But something is better than nothing.
It’s also possible, which is something the NFL proved last week, filling the vacuum created by the COVID-19 pandemic in the sports world and ultimately reaping the rewards. The NFL Draft drew record-smashing television ratings, raised tens of millions of dollars for charity and generated an untold sum of goodwill — no small feat for a league that often does the opposite.
So who’s got next? If Gary Bettman is paying attention — and surely he was — it should be the National Hockey League, capitalizing on an opportunity.
Not by dropping the puck. No, that still seems like a long shot for now. But there’s no good reason not to throw those ping-pong balls in the hopper, hold a lottery that’ll presumably have the Red Wings’ best interests at heart, and then proceed with the NHL Draft in June as scheduled.
Or maybe even moved up a few weeks, a possibility that was raised on a conference call with league general managers last week. The NHL Draft originally was scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal, but that event was postponed in late March, along with the April 9 lottery and the early June scouting combine.
But now, even as the league grapples with various contingency plans for finishing its 2019-20 season this summer, there’s a push to move forward with the draft, regardless.
“It was a trial balloon — no decision has been made,” Bettman said in an interview with Sportsnet’s Ron MacLean last week. “And I said as we were getting some feedback, ‘We don’t live in a world of perfect anymore. We’re going to have to make adjustments.’”
But this is one that makes too much sense not to make for the NHL, which stands to lose more than $1 billion in revenue if it can’t resume play and hold the Stanley Cup playoffs, something that has happened just once in the last century — during the 2004-05 lockout.
Knowns and unknowns
The NFL comparison isn’t an entirely fair one, obviously. That league finished its season in February, and the most important part of teams’ draft preparations was completed before the COVID-19 shutdown.
But the precedent Roger Goodell & Co. set by holding their draft remotely offers an easy blueprint for the other major U.S. pro sports leagues to follow. An incentive, too, as the three-day event drew an average audience of 8.4 million viewers, a 35% increase over its previous high. For broadcast partners starved for live content, that’s a serious lifeline. For the NHL, it’s also a way to stay relevant — generating interest before, during and after the draft — for a league that doesn’t have nearly the same clout as the NFL.
There are details that will need to be hashed out, and obstacles to clear before a draft can proceed in the NHL. It starts with figuring out the lottery, and the good news there for Detroit is the league is expected to use teams’ points percentage to determine the odds. The Red Wings, with a league-worst 39 points in 71 games, would have an 18.5 percent shot at the No. 1 pick, and a nearly 50% shot at a top-three pick. (If the NHL opts to revert to the pre-2012 lottery rules, as some have suggested, Detroit would be assured of a top-two pick.)
Sure, that leaves open the possibility a team could win the lottery, draft 18-year-old star Alexis Lafrenière, then also win the Cup, assuming there’s a resumption of regular-season play. But that’s an even longer shot, frankly. And several teams are pushing back against the idea. Our old friend Brendan Shanahan — now the Toronto Maple Leafs president — probably said it best, telling a local radio station there last week, “While we know what we’re doing now, which is not anything, we should get (the draft) out of the way and take care of it in June.”
Teams that were on the playoff bubble before the season was paused with a dozen or so games remaining would have a legitimate gripe. There’s also the question of how the league might handle draft-related trades and conditional picks. The traditional late-June draft — right before the start of free agency — typically generates a ton of trade activity. But that won’t be the case if there’s still part of a season to be played, right?
“A lot of trades happened at the deadline (in February) that were contingent on what happens with that team in the playoffs or that player in the playoffs,” Boston Bruins president Cam Neely said during a virtual town hall with the team’s season ticket-holders last week. “It could affect your draft choice. A lot of things have to be worked out to have the draft prior to finding out who the Stanley Cup champion is.”
Yet there are just as many problems with waiting to hold the draft in August or September, as Bettman noted, from delaying teams’ ability to start working with their prospects to the potential conflicts it might create with European players and their league schedules overseas.
“There are issues on both sides of the equation,” Bettman said. “So it’s not like, ‘Well, if we wait, the draft will be perfect.’ There will be another set of issues if we wait.”
Besides, there are no guarantees this waiting game will end with one team hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Just looking at some of the precautions that will be required for NBA teams to reopen their facilities to players for voluntary workouts in the coming weeks, it’s easy to see what a monumental challenge it will be to try to stage actual practices and games, let alone finish a season or hold the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NBA already has pushed back its original plan and now has set May 8 as a possible target date for teams to begin opening their doors, the Associated Press reported. But even then, according to a memo distributed league-wide, it would allow for only individual workouts and only four players in the building at a time, while also requiring quarantine restrictions, elaborate disinfection protocols — everything from equipment to cell phones and keys — and expanded social-distancing guidelines.
The NHL is probably at least a week or two behind the NBA, in that regard, and Bettman was quick to add, “This isn’t a race. The stakes are too important.”
He also prefaced all of his comments last week with the obvious caveat. Everything remains up in the air for now — “Time seems to float,” as he put it — and most of these decisions will be dictated not by the NHL commissioner or the league’s owners, but rather government officials across the U.S. and Canada as they weigh public-health concerns and gradually lift some of the workplace restrictions that are in place.
“Any decisions we’re making and anything we’re considering doing starts with health and well-being,” Bettman said. “In the final analysis, we are hopeful that, by doing the right things in the short term, we’ll be able to come back and hopefully complete this season on some basis that is fair and has integrity.”
That’s why the league and the players’ union have formed a “Return To Play” committee. And while there are several scenarios being discussed, the one that has gotten the most attention and seems to have the most traction is a plan that would have NHL teams gathering for a few weeks of training camp in June and finishing out the regular season in as many as four NHL cities at once with multiple games a day in arenas without fans. Then, it would be on to the playoffs, through the end of September, pushing the start of 2020-21 season closer to Thanksgiving.
“Clearly, we can play into the summer, and clearly we can play next season — which we intend to do in its entirety — starting later,” Bettman said. “And so with a lot of timing options, we have a great deal of flexibility. And we’re not gonna rush anything. We’re not gonna do anything that’s crazy. We’re gonna try and do something under the circumstances at the time that is sensible.”
The most sensible place to start, though, is by following the NFL’s lead and giving fans some hope. And in a city like Detroit, maybe even something to cheer about.