Don’t start what you can’t finish: The case for no hockey in 2020-21

It’s been said that one of the cruelest things a person can do is to awaken someone’s love without truly loving them. (Romance and hockey aren’t juxtaposed often enough, imho.) Now, with sports inviting so many mixed feelings by trying to play through a global pandemic, is precisely the time to look at hockey through the prism of unrequited love.

What do we love about sports? Is it the crowning of a champion? Is it the sense of normalcy it brings to the rhythm of our lives? Is it the emotional transportation?

The idea of emotional transportation is a favorite of Peter Guber, the Hollywood magnate who co-owns the NBA’s Warriors and the MLB’s Dodgers. He’s compared sports to movies in this way: both take your emotions for a ride. He sees this ride as the key to sales and presidential elections alike. And I think it gets us part of the way to understanding why we witnessed such an oddly-timed NHL postseason in August and September.

Profit margins are the driving force behind any business decision. Put simply, money talks. The NHL and its owners had more to lose by not crowning a 2019-20 champion. Yet there’s also a component of storytelling and emotional transportation that made the logistical hurdles ― quarantining, isolating in Edmonton and Toronto, abiding by various COVID-19 safety protocols ― an easier sell to the players, coaches and media that had to live and work in a “bubble.” A lot of hockey had been played before the novel coronavirus postponed the regular season in March. Some teams had played as many as 71 games. Some teams were playing really, really well. To not see a season through to its logical conclusion is eminently dissatisfying if your team is in playoff position in mid-March. (If you live in California, like me, your local team’s season ended months earlier.) For fans of the playoff teams, a regular season without a postseason felt like unfinished business.

I want to dwell on that feeling for a moment. It’s really important for understanding the difference between finishing a season that was seven-eighths complete and starting a season from scratch. On the Major League Baseball calendar, mid-March falls square in the middle of spring training. No team had played a game that counted by the time the novel coronavirus put the 2020 MLB season on pause. Starting a season and re-starting a season are two different things. Within the baseball industry, starting a season felt optional. The same feeling held even among some diehard fans.

Maybe that’s why MLB and its players’ union felt so comfortable taking their labor dispute public. There was little shared sense of trying to make a season work. Even when the season began, there were dissenters on both sides of the labor aisle. Seventeen players ultimately chose not opt out of the season. (Two of the 17 later opted back in.) “One or two” team owners voted against playing the season altogether.

What does any of this have to do with hockey?

Just because there was a 2020 postseason doesn’t mean there needs to be a 2020-21 regular season. More to the point, we ought not to start what we can’t finish. Already, hockey seasons have begun with no finish line in sight. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News advances this point eloquently:

The Quebec League, with help from the provincial government, has been the only major junior league to play this season and it has done so with middling results. “It’s been a disaster,” one NHL scout said. As of today, some teams in the QMHJL have played 14 games, others have played three. The teams in Quebec’s red-zone have gone into their own mini-bubble in an effort to make some of those games up, but you just get the feeling that once the league plugs one hole, water comes gushing out of another one. Meanwhile, the NHL scouts who are evaluating these players for the NHL, for the most part aren’t even allowed in the buildings. And there will be no scouts at the World Juniors this year. In Ontario, minor midget players are competing in private for-profit leagues under other names, but the OHL is discouraging its scouts from going to those games because their considered rival leagues to Hockey Canada.

And the thing is, it’s not getting any better.

Originally published on SportsIllustrated.com, Nov. 18

Starting a season that can’t be finished is not worth the emotional toll ― and that’s just speaking as a fan. I can’t fathom the task of a team physician or traveling secretary trying to coax a team and its support staff through whatever COVID-19 protocol the NHL prescribes. If I was a player potentially separating from my wife and children to join another hockey “bubble” for months on end, my decision would not be an easy one.

It’s too soon to say when it would be safe to begin a season. I just know that we need all the optimism a possible coronavirus vaccine can offer. As of today, no vaccines have been approved for full use. As of today, then, I’m not ready to say I want hockey yet. Give me reruns, give me EA’s NHL21, but don’t give me another bubble plan. Not yet.

To begin a season is to awaken the fans’ love. To postpone or cancel said season without crowning a champion would be tantamount to heartbreak.

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