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NHL considering games at neutral sites without fans if season resumes

Not preferred option, Deputy Commissioner Daly says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The NHL would be willing to play games without fans at neutral sites if that's what it takes to finish the season, after pausing it March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

"I'd say it's one possibility, for sure, and it's something that has been considered and something that has been discussed," Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Friday. "It's not our preferred result or outcome."

Daly said officials have begun creating lists of what they would need, as they are for other possibilities.

"Our goal is to be as prepared as we possibly can be for any eventuality and to be able to react to the situation on very little notice to kind of set a course," he said. "But at this point, it continues to be premature to set that course."

The unknowns continue to far outweigh the knowns.

The NHL directed players to self-quarantine through April 15, but on Tuesday, that was extended until April 30.

Daly said in 25 of the NHL's 31 markets it would be difficult for team facilities to open to the players because of local directives. Many stay-at-home orders run through the end of April. The NHL is taking cues from government and health authorities on safety.

"In a large respect, they're in control of the timetable," the Deputy Commissioner said. "We're not getting back on May 1, right? We're not playing games on May 1. We're probably not in a position even to open our facilities by May 1, although we'll see."

The window remains open to finish the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The NHL has asked teams for arena availabilities through August and could push back the start of next season while playing a full schedule.

"I think we still have scenarios where we think we can complete a regular season and can play a playoff tournament that looks like our normal playoff tournament and have an offseason and start a season next year that will be a complete season," Daly said. "We've got some time to work with."

The most creative idea Daly has heard came from someone in Europe: Why not fly all the teams to his country to finish it there?

"I thought that was kind of novel," he said. "Even with me being of the view that I never want to rule out any possibility, I think that one would be unrealistic."

Daly speaks regularly to Steve Hatze Petros, the NHL executive vice president of scheduling and broadcast business.

"We're looking at when we would have to start to complete a full season next year, how much time we'd need in the offseason between seasons this year, how much time we'd need for the playoffs in different types of scenarios, whether we can fit regular-season games in and how many and how much time we'd need on that in different scenarios," Daly said.

The Deputy Commissioner also speaks regularly to the NHLPA, members of which must decide how to handle their last paycheck of the season amid a revenue shortfall. A percentage of the players' salaries is held in escrow as part of the system that ensures a 50-50 split in hockey-related revenues between the players and the owners.

"I think the situation has warranted a very regular, frequent dialogue with the Players' Association," Daly said. "I think we've worked well together. Sometimes in emergent situations like this, it really kind of brings parties together, and I would say it's been a very cooperative relationship, cooperative approach, at this point, which I view as positive."

One thing is certain.

"I can say that we've been consistent and remain of the view that we want to play if we can," Daly said. "We want to conclude the '19-20 season if we can. I think the players strongly are aligned in that view, which is a positive. I haven't got a sense from anybody in any of my interactions with the Players' Association that any player wants to pull the plug on the season, unless and until the health authorities tell us we have to pull the plug on the season. That continues to be our sole objective."

The NHL has not set a deadline for a decision on canceling the season.

"If we got information tomorrow that suggested that continuing this process is not the right way to go, then it could all change," Daly said. "But we have every intention of using all the time we have, with the outside goal of preserving a full season next year, to play this out. And that's how I expect it will go. I expect we're not going to know enough to make any determinations in the near term.

"We're fully committed to playing again this year, and we'll wait as long as we can possibly wait to make that determination."

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