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PHN Debate: Should Hockey Resume with NHL Playoffs at Neutral Site?

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Before the NBA, NHL, then MLB paused their current seasons, we prepared for games without fans; empty arenas. The Pittsburgh Penguins were to play the first fanless game at Nationwide Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the game was instead postponed, and days later the season was suspended. There continue to be discussions about the hockey season resuming with NHL playoffs only, and the remainder

Amid the turmoil and uncertainty not just of daily activities in this country, President Trump held a conference call with 13 sports commissioners on Saturday. According to ESPN, Trump said he believes the NFL season should be able to start on time in September.

That puts the 2019-20 NHL in a precarious position.

Welcome to the first in a series of Pittsburgh Hockey Now debates between Editor-in-Chief Dan Kingerski and reporter extraordinaire Shelly Anderson.

Question: If the NHL can resume in July, should the league begin with the playoffs, attempt to finish the regular season or use a tournament format to finalize playoff spots?

Dan: Go straight to the playoffs. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, and do not finish the regular season.

As much as we all love the idea of a pre-playoff tournament, at least one GM is already against it on the basis of unfairness to the players. We would ask players to report for a two-week training camp in the middle of summer, only to send half of those players home with nothing to show for it.

The same logic applies to the idea of completing a modified or shortened regular season. Realistically, four teams in the Western Conference have a shot at the wild-card, and perhaps five teams have that chance in the Eastern Conference.

But there are tiebreakers already in place. It stinks for teams like Columbus and Winnipeg who are in playoff spots and may not make the playoffs because other teams have better points percentages or head-to-head records, but life isn’t fair for anyone right now.

Shelly: It’s interesting that the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby said he’s in favor of going straight to the playoffs, while Edmonton star Connor McDavid said he wants to see a resumption of the regular season. Both players are on teams that are sitting in a playoff spot as of the NHL’s pause.

That lends credence to both sides of the debate. In addition, the timing of the restart could affect the decision.

That said, we have agreement here. The NHL should go right to the playoffs if any resumption of the season is possible. That’s not fair to a few teams right on the cusp, and some teams already above the playoff cutoff might otherwise have a chance to move up, maybe secure home ice.

But nothing about the pandemic and all things affected by it is fair. The playoffs bring the NHL back with a bang, and that could be crucial with perhaps baseball and NFL training camps starting up concurrently. To make things a little more fair financially for a league that relies heavily on gate revenue, maybe there could be agreement on a one-time revenue sharing plan for teams that are out of the playoffs since they didn’t get to play all their home regular-season dates.

Dan: Some things which make sense are “preseason” games. The Pittsburgh Penguins could play two or three Western Conference teams, as teams get some ice time for conditioning and timing before the playoffs begin. If the NHL feels strongly they cannot simply end the regular season, there could be a small window of games, but the league won’t likely have two or three weeks which would allow playoff seeds to be determined and wild-card battles to be settled.

Question 2: Would you be in favor of all games being played at a neutral site? 

Shelly: No. Just can’t see the advantage. Teams still would have to travel, stay in hotels, etc. — and in this case both teams, not just the visitors. If they have to play in empty arenas, let it be their own arenas.

Yes, it could be a “new experience” as a made-for-TV event, but if things are still so iffy because of the pandemic that a neutral site is the only option, then hold off on games returning. Let’s try to keep some sort of normalcy.

To cut down on travel if that is a major concern, alter the playoff format — 3-2 for a best-of-five or 4-3 for a best-of-seven. The team without home-ice advantage has to win at least one on the road anyway.

Dan: Absolutely. The pandemic is raging New York City, and the city may not be safe until we confirm the existence of a vaccine. The safest way and the fastest way to resume play is a quarantined neutral site(s), in which the players’ safety can be guaranteed. A singular site with quarantined players, quarantined staff and rigorous cleaning policies has a greater chance of success, or put another way, much less chance of infection.

A single site can be more easily controlled. Using 31 home arenas with 31 support staffs leaves too much margin for error. One mistake by one person could contaminate a few teams, and then its all over, again.

Especially in an isolated place like Grand Forks, ND the players and all involved could be kept safe, even if they live like virus prisoners in dorms or hotels for one or two months.

We need this. Badly.

Shelly: Unfortunately, even holding games in a remote outpost is not foolproof in terms of being safe during the pandemic. Players, staff, broadcasters and such should not set the example of being exceptions when everyone else is being asked to stay home and social distance. It’s too important for everyone to comply.

There just isn’t such thing as enough of a controlled environment for a series of contact sports events to beat a virus that has sparked a pandemic. It seems too likely that, even if everyone involved has been quarantining as best as possible leading up to the games, someone will develop symptoms or test positive or realize they might have been exposed through some sort of contact, and that will be that.

A reported plan for baseball to hunker down and hold games in Arizona is receiving mixed reaction for the same reasons.

Sad to say, things need to remain on hold until it is determined games can be held in some normal way with the blessing of leading pandemic experts. Trying to skirt that with a neutral-site base isn’t the answer.

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