The good, the bad and the unique of the 2020 NHL playoff format

October 9, 2020

The year 2020 has certainly been an unprecedented one. 

Back at the beginning of March, the world as we knew it came to a relatively sudden halt. Over a period of a few short weeks, country borders shut down, schools and universities emptied out and a lot of work places moved to be online. This would quickly become the new normal as the weeks and months continued to trudge along. A pandemic had hit and had impacted literally everything along the way.

Sports were no different. The NBA announced via their official Twitter account that they were suspending the season on March 11, after having a number of players test positive for the coronavirus. The MLB delayed their spring training. And not long after, on March 12, the NHL did the same, hitting the pause button on the rest of their season. 

For months after that day, the sports world, along with just about everything else, was at a standstill. It became clear that this was not going to be a short-term thing. The virus, at least for now, was here to stay. So after not much news between mid-March and the end of May, the NHL finally decided to come back out and propose a return-to-play plan. Considering the requirements that would need to be fulfilled, this would have to be a proposal like no other. Everyone had their needs. 

First, and foremost, the league needed any return to play to be done safely. They did not want to face coming back just to close down again two weeks later with an infestation of the virus. Second, there were two national borders at play and regulations that needed to be respected in travelling across from one to the other. Third, there were the teams themselves. If everything else was able to be sorted through and a resumption of the season and playoffs was to be had, it would have to be done fairly for all 31 teams involved. Finally, the players wanted assurance that if they were to come back, it would be for some substantial amount of time for it to make sense for them on a personal level, as well as that they would have enough time to train beforehand after three months off, to make sure to avoid injury. 

So after the NHL made the very tough and controversial decision to return, the work had just barely begun. Now they’d have to figure out how to appease all these different sides, not to mention all the more intricate details that haven’t been mentioned. Yet, they were set on finding a way to get it done. Well, just about four months after the initial discussions had been had, it’s safe to say they pulled it off. 

Some decisions were questionable. Certain players, teams and officials weren’t happy with certain steps along the way. Despite all that, the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sept. 28. Perhaps most impressively, it was given without a single positive test result for the coronavirus out of the 33,174 taken by players, coaches, management, league officials and crew support staff, since the start of the process. That is truly a commendable feat!

Four months before any of this, on May 26, after much change, adaptation and negotiation, Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, announced the basis of the plan on how teams would get back on the ice. The rest of the regular season was cancelled and the play-offs would start immediately. It involved two hub cities, one for each conference, in which all team members would have to stay during the entire time they were participating in the tournament. There were many logistics to be carved out, including: how do they choose which teams qualify for the postseason considering the regular season was never completed? Which cities can be used as hub cities? How do players coming back from Russia and Europe get to come back into North America during these tumultuous times? What should quarantine restrictions be? How much time do players get to train before competing in games? How can players move around within the bubble created? How much will no fans in attendance affect the atmosphere and therefore the performances? And many, many more questions. 

It is truly remarkable to look back and see that not only were the playoffs able to be done in full, in a way everyone felt was more or less fair, but also proved to be incredibly safe; especially when compared to many other sports leagues’ returns. However along with all the good, there came some negative points as well. As reported by ESPN, the greatest among them was likely the significant mental and emotional toll on many of the athletes. They were away from family for months, often feeling forced into a space that did have some activities for them to take advantage of, but that was reported to be literally fenced in. Having friends, family and childhood coaches all pulled away in the toughest time was exceptionally difficult; players lost much of their support system. Then there were complaints about the accessories in the bubble and the players not getting everything they were originally promised. 

Not to mention this playoff format would push off the upcoming season because of how late in the year it was being played. Therefore for the teams that did not end up qualifying for this tournament, they will not have played a game (and some of them not even have access to an ice rink) for well over eight months. As they were seeing all their friends find a way to go back and compete in the game they loved, they were watching helplessly from the sidelines. 

The New York Times explained how many long-serving staff members of all teams, just like in jobs throughout the country, received pay cuts and even permanent layoffs since the start of the pandemic. Since the league lost a lot of revenue from fans not being allowed in arenas, the salary cap (the maximum allotment any given team can spend on players throughout the season) went down as well. So players and agents, who have been waiting for years to make a big payday this offseason, have to wait longer as there just isn’t much salary to spend. This was an unexpected and challenging year for many in the sports world, as it was for many across the globe. 

Despite all this, when the Lightning did raise the cup high above their heads into an empty arena on that chilly Monday night in Edmonton, Alberta, there was more than just the regular sense of joy. It was a genuine feeling of elation; their win in this unique format was that much sweeter. Their captain Stevn Stamkos told The Score, “it was so special to do it this year in the style that we did it.” He went on, “it’s something we talked about at the beginning of [summer] training camp, that it’s not just going to take 20 guys to win the Stanley Cup, it’s going to take every single guy in this bubble, and I’m so proud of each and every one of them.” However, it wasn’t only the Lightning who were filled with elation on that historic night. Every team felt some kind of relief and gratitude for what had played out. Even the ones that left the enclosed space empty-handed knew how big a deal it was that the 2020 season ended with a winner. For the league, the teams and fans of the sport, it gave them hope of how to move forward safely amid the chaos in the world. 

Next season is still up in the air; the players have not agreed yet to enter back into a bubble for a full 82-game season. However, this past summer the NHL and NHLPA worked together like never before, and agreed to terms in record time to be able to go ahead with their plan. In times of crisis, people more quickly join together and put aside differences for the same goal. Therefore, with the knowledge of how well the 2019-2020 season ended up concluding in the most difficult and demanding of times, the league and fans of the game alike can walk away with their head held high. Tip your cap to all involved, because with the new normal we are entering, there is comfort in realizing the sport can find ways to come together and continue, and most importantly, that it can be done in a safe and healthy way. 

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