NHL reopening plan could send Isles elsewhere
Commissioner exploring 'eight or nine' locales for resumption
Barring something unforeseen, the New York Islanders’ Brooklyn era is over.
But the NHL franchise, which has been idle since the league shut down operations on March 12 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, may not be able to return to the renovated Nassau Coliseum either, if or when the league returns to action.
On Monday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated that the league is looking at “eight or nine places” that can accommodate “a dozen or so teams in one location” as it continues to ponder possible scenarios for resumption.
The Coliseum, which will host all remaining Islander home games for the remainder of this season and next until the team’s Belmont Park Arena project in Elmont, N.Y., is completed, lacks the infrastructure to serve as a centralized location where several games could be played per day.
“I don’t think anybody has a fixed timetable, particularly in North America right now,” Bettman readily admitted during a digital interview.
“We have been working very hard since we took the pause on March 12 to make sure that whatever the timing is, whatever the sequencing is, whatever physical ability we have in terms of locations to play, that we’re in a position to execute any or all of those options. There is still a great deal of uncertainty.”
That uncertainty began with the Isles in the midst of a season-high seven-game losing streak that dropped them a single point behind Carolina and Columbus for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
After picking up a point in a 5-4 shootout loss in Vancover on March 10, the Isles headed to Calgary before being redirected back to New York as the league announced its pause, following suit with the NBA, MLB and sports entertainment entities around the globe.
The unexpected stoppage also derailed any hopes of the Isles getting a proper sendoff from Brooklyn fans as their final two games at Downtown’s Barclays Center, March 17 vs. Calgary and March 22 vs. Carolina, were cancelled.
After playing in our borough since 2015, the Isles announced that all their future home dates would be played at the Coliseum until their new arena is completed, presumably in time for the 2021-22 campaign.
Bettman, however, claimed two years ago that the Coliseum is “not a viable option” to be a franchise’s full-time home, and even went as far as to say it is “not a major league facility.”
That hardly boosts Isles’ fans confidence that they will be able to attend Islander games in Uniondale, N.Y., if the NHL does resume at some point this summer.
But Bettman’s problems are much bigger than arena size and locker room facilities these days.
The commissioner said the NHL would need to resolve border and quarantine issues to reconvene the players, 17 percent of whom are outside North America, according to NHL.com.
The league would also need the hotel space to house teams and test personnel for COVID-19 without doing so at the expense of the medical community.
“I am told that there can be enough capacity, and certainly over the next couple of months, there will be more capacity,” Bettman intimated. “But that is a fundamental question, and we certainly can’t be jumping the line in front of medical needs.”
The Isles may not be in a position to return at all if the league bypasses the remaining games on the regular season slate and shoots straight into the playoffs when it resumes.
After reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals a season ago and winning just their second postseason series since 1993, the Isles would simply continue sitting at home and watching 16 other teams compete for the Stanley Cup if the NHL skips the final 14 games on New York’s schedule.
“Do we complete the regular season when we’re given the opportunity?” Bettman pondered. “Do we do an abbreviated regular season, because our competitive balance is so extraordinary, it’s hard to tell how the season would have ended? Do we go right to the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs and in what form?
“And if we’re not playing in front of fans, which at least in the short term seems [likely], do we do it in a centralized location or locations? And if so, what places might be suitable from a COVID-19 standpoint in terms of the communities that you’re in and how big the outbreak is? And what is the availability of testing? And so that requires a collaboration with our medical advisers.”
Baseball season has yet to begin due to COVID-19 concerns and the NBA has been on pause right along with the NHL since March.
None of these leagues has a definitive plan on how to resume at the moment and none may start play without a nod of approval from individual states willing to house pro sports franchises that might not even be their own.
“I believe that all of the major sports in North America are going through this same exercise, and while the medical and health issues are probably to some extent the same for all of us, the logistics of what we do and how we do it may be a little different depending on the sport,” Bettman said.
The commissioner also ceded that when or if the NHL will return isn’t a decision that the league can make alone.
“So a lot of our planning and a lot of the issues we’re confronting ultimately are going to be resolved for us by other people, whether it’s physicians or whether it’s governmental leaders,” he said.
“And that’s why we have to be doing a lot of contingency planning so we can react to whatever they’re telling is us appropriate and permissible.”
Like most of us during these uncertain and novel times, the NHL can’t do much more than sit and wait for things to open up, though they are doing their best to plan for virtually every conceivable re-opening scenario.
“I think the major sports and their franchises will get through this and will come back as strong as ever,” Bettman. “It’s just a question of time.”
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