The NHL announced Thursday that it was suspending play indefinitely in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but the league is already preparing for its eventual return, says commissioner Gary Bettman.
Speaking on Friday to Sportsnet 590 in Toronto, Bettman outlined what the league is doing to get ready to put players back on the ice and fans back in the seats at an undetermined point in the future. At this point, the commissioner said, everything is on the table.
"We have an internal task force that has been meeting two times a day, in the morning and afternoon, and we are exploring every contingency," Bettman said. "We're looking out in the calendar to see, 'Well what's the last day we could be playing under other scenarios?' And then backing it up, and what are options in the timeframe that's available. And we're doing all sorts of modeling, whether it's completing the existing regular season as is and then a full playoffs, or whether or not, based on time constraints, we're going to have to make adjustments and do something different, novel, creative. And we're constantly reanalyzing and reworking that."
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Bettman admitted that the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the NHL is planning for an endgame that has no set schedule or timeline. It means the league has to put together a plan with an undetermined number of contingencies, with Bettman comparing the situation to completing a complicated puzzle.
"The interesting part of this puzzle is you don't know exactly what it's gonna look like when you're done," he said. "But our responsibility to our players, our teams, [and] most importantly, our fans, is to make sure we're doing everything right and making sure that when we come back — and I believe we will at some point because I'm an optimist — it'll be when it's appropriate and when it's safe so that everybody can be comfortable."
Even with meticulous planning and preparedness, Bettman stressed that when the league comes back — in whatever form it can — the ultimate decisions aren't up to him and the NHL's board of governors. The league will act when governing bodies across North America deem it safe to do so, and no earlier.
"I think those who are in charge of our governments, either in Canada or the US, at the federal level, the state level and local level will tell us, right? We're not equipped to say, 'The pandemic's over,'" Bettman said. "There are going to be medical people at the highest level who are going to tell us all [when life can get back to normal]."
For now, the NHL has paused the schedule and put practices and team meetings on hold. The league shutdown has extended to its office in Manhattan, which has mirrored many others across the continent in asking employees to work from home in order to limit contact and the spreading of the virus. Despite the scattered working environment, Bettman assured that the league will be ready to start back up as soon as it can.
"I'm in New York, I'm in the office. We have everybody working from home, as do most large businesses now," Bettman said. "And I think that's what you're seeing all over. Schools are closed for the next few weeks throughout North America. And so, as those decisions have been made, it's based on the advice of those in charge, and we'll be reliant on them telling us as well.
"All we can do is make every conceivable plan so that we're in a position to react appropriately."