As the 2019-2020 NHL season comes to a close, it is worth reflecting on lessons from a playoff season that will surely be remembered for years to come.
Other professional sports leagues, such as the MLB, demonstrated that without a “bubble” to compete in, professional sports seasons would never last in the COVID-19 era. However, the process of creating a bubble is much more difficult than it may seem on the surface. Organizing 12 teams to play on one rink without coming into contact with each other off the ice takes rigorous planning and adaptability. To minimize travel and the risk of contracting COVID-19, the NHL playoffs were constrained to two hub cities: Edmonton and Toronto. Locker rooms and team benches were thoroughly sanitized between games to prevent transmission from team to team. Extraordinary circumstances require out-of-the-box thinking.
While the situation may not have been ideal, with many players away from their families and no in-person game attendance, players were excited for the opportunity to play again—and the fans were even more excited to watch. In an attempt to energize the silent, empty arenas, broadcast teams used fake noises to simulate the presence of fans. To keep the mood upbeat, the NHL also put electric fans in some of the seats as a joke. When Connor McDavid scored a hat-trick in Game 2 of qualifiers against the Chicago Blackhawks, the league had staff threw hats on the ice to compensate for the missing fans. Despite this, some critics were concerned about the effect that the absence of fans would have on the energy in the arena and the players’ performances. While there was a noticeable lack of fans and crowd energy, it only minimally affected players’ intensity and focus. With the help of some upbeat music, encouragement from teammates on the bench, and the allure of the Stanley Cup, players brought high caliber competitive play every night. Each game, whether it was a blowout or a five-overtime thriller, was exciting to watch.
The lack of a crowd did not stop each player and team from playing the kind of hockey that kept fans on the edge of their couches. Facing elimination, the Toronto Maple Leafs were down 3-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in game four of the series. With just 23 seconds left, they tied the game, forcing an overtime that kept them in the playoffs.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, the Dallas Stars, also facing elimination, came into game five determined not to go home that night. After a gruelling game and two overtime periods, the Stars won the game, avoiding elimination and keeping their Stanley Cup dreams alive.
As for how the next season will proceed, there are still many unknowns. The bubble playoffs were successful because travel was unnecessary and teams were isolated from the public. Having teams go back to their home cities and forcing travel across the continent for games could lead to major issues regarding player and staff health. The NHL pulled off the 2020 playoffs; now, the challenge will be safely bringing the sport back outside of bubble cities.