If the National Hockey League returns to action this summer — and that remains a pretty big if at this point — it appears Winnipeg won’t be among the handful of cities selected to host regular-season and playoff games in empty arenas without fans.
Commissioner Gary Bettman revealed Wednesday night the league is exploring a unique return-to-play scenario in which all 31 teams would be centralized in as many as four existing NHL markets, perhaps one from each division.
With seven or eight teams housed in each location, there would be multiple games per day in each venue as a means of finishing out the season, which had just over three weeks left at the time the league paused in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This would greatly reduce the amount of travel required, while also avoiding densely populated hot spots such as New York in which coronavirus numbers are still very high.
It would also allow the NHL to chip away at the forecasted $1 billion in lost revenue if the 2019-20 season can’t be concluded, which would have a major financial impact on the entire league, including the salary cap. It would also throw their broadcast partners a lifeline in the form of fresh content, while also giving fans something to cheer for.
At first blush, Winnipeg would seem to be an ideal candidate, with a low rate of infection and mostly flattened curve, in addition to NHL-ready infrastructures such as Bell MTS Place for games and Bell MTS Iceplex for practices.
However, multiple reports from NHL insiders suggest Minneapolis-St. Paul has emerged as the likely Central Division base. And a Jets source told the Free Press on Thursday that Winnipeg would be a long-shot at best at this point, although the situation remains fluid and nothing is set in stone.
Bettman said as much in his interview with Ron MacLean where he revealed details of the above scenario.
“All of this is contingent, nothing has been decided,” Bettman said. “The decision ultimately will be made by medical people and people who run governments at all different levels. We’re not going to try to do anything that flies in the face of what we’re being told is appropriate.”
Other cities that have been speculated on include Edmonton and Glendale in the Pacific, Dallas in the Central, Raleigh and Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan and Toronto in the Atlantic.
At the time the season came to a halt, the 37-28-6 Jets owned the first Western Conference wildcard playoff spot and had 11 games left on their schedule. Four of those were at home, while seven were on the road.
Under this proposed scenario, seven of Winnipeg’s games could be played in their host venue — their four remaining “home” games and three “road” games against Central Division rivals. The other four road games are all against Pacific Division teams and could be held in whatever city those squads were based out of.
The schedule would likely play out through July, with playoffs beginning in August and running through September. That would allow for the 2020-21 season to begin around November, although whether that could include fans if a vaccine still hasn’t developed remains unlikely at this point.
“Minneapolis would work pretty well for me. It’s only three hours south (from Duluth), so I’m in favour of that,” Jets defenceman Neal Pionk said Thursday in a Zoom call with media. The Minnesota native is currently hunkered down at his off-season home along with his girlfriend and brother.
“If it works out — obviously safety is the first priority, as far as local governments or state governments or provincial governments — as long as they allow that and the public is healthy, I would be in favour of playing in a centralized location without fans,” said Pionk.
“There are so many scenarios out there, we would have to nail down which one we’re talking about. But as far as playing in an empty venue to declare a Cup champion, I would be in favour. With the way we were playing at the end of the year, hopefully, we can carry that momentum if and when things pick back up.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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