The NHL's bloated playoff proposal is a bid for normalcy that's anything but

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May 8, 2002
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Gary Bettman has announced plans to complete the NHL’s coronavirus-interrupted season with an expanded 24-team postseason, but one question persists: Why bother?Sites, dates and times are to be determined, but the National Hockey League is planning to complete its coronavirus-interrupted 2019-20 season at some point this summer with its best aspect by far, the Stanley Cup playoffs.OK, fine. So why is it even bothering?“We’re not planning this for the economics,” Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said after making the announcement Tuesday on NBC, the NHL’s broadcast partner. “The economic consequence of what’s going on has for the most part already been sustained, and we’re feeling the impact. We’re doing this because we’re hearing from our fans overwhelmingly that they’d like us to conclude the season. They’d like the game back. It represents a sense of normalcy.”Here is the thing: a sense of normalcy is more like a very faint whiff of normalcy. First, these playoffs will likely be in mid- to late-summer (not normal), in two “hub” cities (not normal), before no fans (not normal). A whopping 24 of the league’s 31 teams will be eligible for the Cup, not the normal 16.The format is not normal, either: As 16 of the 24 teams compete in best-of-five series (not normal) in a qualifying round, the eight teams that have earned byes will play a round-robin tournament (not normal) to determine seedings for series against the first-round winners (not normal).The conference finals and Stanley Cup final will be best-of-seven series, as normal, but the lengths of the first and second round have not been determined. It is possible that a team could need to win more playoff games for the Cup than the usual 16, which is not normal, either.Even though NBC lost thousands of hours of summer programming because of the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, this was the NHL’s idea. It is clear from the solid ratings of early telecasts of live Nascar and golf events that people want to watch sports, even though they don’t carry the same impact because there are no fans.Those events are not the Stanley Cup playoffs, though. They always say the Cup is the hardest to win in sports because each round is quite literally a two-week battle – and there are four rounds. By the end, almost everyone is playing with some sort of injury. Each series, even the last one, ends with a noble handshake line of the two combatants, honoring each other.Teams have competed for the Cup for nearly 130 years through a simple playoff system free of gimmicks. There are no shootouts in the playoffs, and if six overtimes are needed for a tie-breaking goal (as in 1936), well, they play six overtimes. This get-up feels like a gimmick.To its credit, the NHL is approaching these amended playoffs with caution per the coronavirus, with NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr saying on NBC: “We have done as best we can at this point to design appropriate health and safety protocols. If they need to be amended over time, we will amend them. This is a living document.”The playoffs won’t feel anything like a stirring crescendo, as usual. The season was suspended on 12 March, so the players will have been out of action for more than three months before they gather again for pre-tournament training camps. Eight teams could see their seasons end after going through a training camp, then losing three straight games.Those first-round “seeding” games among the top eight teams, four per conference, won’t feel anything like playoff games – or even regular-season games among the league’s elite. Hockey players, much like basketball players, feed off the thunderous emotions of its fans (or feed off shutting up the other team’s fans). This will feel like watching a good practice. Meanwhile, the players will be sequestered in hotels.Bettman is not optimistic about, but has not ruled out, holding later rounds of the playoffs in cities in which the teams play, but that seems to bring up other logistical problems, even without fans in the seats – like, those famous watching parties outside both teams’ arenas. These will pretty much exclusively be a watch-it-from-your-couch playoffs.Which is the way most people watch sports on TV, anyway, so it is not as if most people will be missing a lot. I’d bet the players will be trying their hardest. But the quality of play could be compromised by the long layoff, and the atmosphere will be lacking inside the arenas.It just feels so … forced. This is not like cancelling the NCAA basketball tournaments, which include teams that change entirely over four years. There was no Stanley Cup champion in 2005 because an unresolved labor dispute led the NHL to cancel the season. There was no World Series champion in 1994. It sucked, but both leagues got back to it next year.The 2020 Stanley Cup champion, if one is decided, won’t feel the same as the others. Teams did complete 85% of the regular season, and the season is expected to be concluded with the winners’ hoisting of the gleaming silver chalice. But it won’t come close to a sense of normal, even to the players, I’d bet.A pandemic is certainly a valid enough reason to cancel the crowning of a sports champion for one year. What has been derived for the NHL takes away some value of a beloved and cherished trophy that, in normal times, is the most difficult to win.

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