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Penguins Could Win Cup or Top Pick, but NHL is Big Winner

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NHL return, NHL hub cities, Gary Bettman

The awful idea of a June draft is dead. The NHL return has a 24-team playoff format that will be wild fun unless your team finished in third place. The NHL Draft and lottery details may be a little confusing at first, but further examination shows a commitment to all teams and a balanced give-and-take thought process. The Pittsburgh Penguins could win the Stanley Cup or the first overall pick, and that’s kind of exciting.

Believe it or not, the NHL got it right. Every bit of it.

No, very few of us hockey purists want a 24-team tournament, but given the circumstances, we’ll follow Bill Guerin’s advice and “wrap our arms around it.”

Very few of us hockey purists want an NHL Draft in which a team that is a Stanley Cup contender could be awarded a lottery pick because of a qualifying round upset. But the consolation prize of a lottery pick is a tantalizing salve that could heal the wounds.

Very few of us want the 2020-21 NHL season delayed until mid-November, but when you realize that coincides with the projections for a COVID-19 vaccine, which would mean fans could again fill the stands, well the NHL comes up aces on that front, too.

Fortunately, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford did protect his top pick against the lottery in the Penguins trade for Jason Zucker. The Penguins owe the Minnesota Wild a first-round draft pick in 2020 or 2021, so if misfortune (then fortune) falls on the Penguins, they have the option to hold their top pick this season.

On every issue, every decision, the NHL aced the test.

How often does that happen?

Tuesday, the NHL showed the way for North American sports leagues. They showed the leadership which has often been lacking, and they provided fans with enough answers to be confident in the path forward without trapping the league in a bad situation.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was dealt a bad hand, but the league turned it into a full house. In addition to praise for the NHL Return to Play Committee, Bettman deserves praise, as well.

Bettman has guided the NHL for nearly 30 years, and his most significant achievements have been winning lockout labor battles. On Tuesday, that changed as Bettman appeared human and connected to hockey fans who routinely boo him at the Stanley Cup Final, the NHL Draft, and probably in line at the grocery store, too.

Tuesday was his brightest moment. He lit the path forward.

Unanswered Qs

There are outstanding questions, such as “where “and “when,” but the league planning seems to have those issues under control even if the answers are not public.

To whit, the NHL listed 10 potential hub cities. At first glance, that might seem like a lot of work yet to be done. However, we know the NHL has been doing the investigative work for weeks on the cities’ bids. We can surmise the NHL already has its top choices but must make sure the city stays safe.

It would be a bad look to pick City X, then pull out of City X because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The league also left open the question of “when.” By doing so, but setting soft guidelines, the league has the flexibility to push forward faster or pause for a week or two to let an unforeseen situation settle.

Hard dates aren’t necessary yet. Merely the existence of moving forward is a welcome sign.

Travel and Sports

Part of the reason for refiring the engine of sports leagues is to lead the public back to some semblance of normalcy. The NHL return is in front.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security classified professional athletes as essential personnel for the purpose of being able to travel across borders. The NHL is waiting on the Canadian government to make a similar move to avoid additional quarantine rules.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security made the decision and cited societal benefits.

“Professional sporting events provide much needed economic benefits, but equally important, they provide community pride and national unity,” said Wolf via a released statement. “In today’s environment, Americans need their sports. It’s time to reopen the economy, and it’s time we get our professional athletes back to work.”

On Tuesday, Bettman seemed to exclude Canadian cities from potential hub status.

“There are governmental issues. For example, currently, we don’t think we can do this in the Canadian markets because there is a 14-day quarantine,” Bettman said. “We are talking with the Canadian government about it.”

The NHL is hoping for a similar proclamation from the Canadian government to allow travel and to accept a quarantine if it occurred elsewhere, but don’t hold your breath. There are fundamental differences between our countries, which go beyond a French-speaking province. For one, Canada is far more cautious and respectful of rules.

We often flip our finger to authority. Canada is a little different.

By not naming hub cities, Bettman left the door open for Canadian cities if the government changes course, but he also drew lines. Again, Bettman wins.

The Negative

Critics and naysayers point to unresolved issues, but they miss the larger point.

For a sports league which too often gives itself a black eye, Tuesday was a victorious moment. There are details to be finalized, assurances to be kept, but the blueprint is in place, the details are in flux not because the process lacks planning, but because the process has accounted for a fluid situation.

Does it matter if the hub city is in Columbus or Pittsburgh, Las Vegas or Toronto? Those are superfluous details and decisions, the results of which will not change the product or glorious fact, we have hockey.

The NHL is accounting for frequent tests of athletes and club personnel, but even that has drawn fire from critics. The league won’t be using governmental resources, and “the curve” has been flattened in all sectors.

Wasn’t “flattening the curve” the reason we quarantined? The NHL return will require the league to purchase thousands of tests but using private labs will not negatively impact society or deprive individuals who need testing.

Lost amid the scary headlines and condemning stories of weekend parties, is a lot of positive news. For once, the NHL is part of the good news. The pitch and tone were a perfect blend of caution, optimism, and detail.

On the biggest stage of our lifetime, Bettman and the NHL are getting it right.

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