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NHL Making Contingency Plans For Return To Action At Neutral Sites

James Murphy
by in NHL on
  • It has been just over a month since the NHL suspended play due to the Coronavirus pandemic
  • The league is considering the feasibility of a return and several contingency plans.
  • At this stage there are a variety of interesting scenarios on the table

Given the state of international sports right now we’ll take the good news where we can get it. We’ll even take *potentially* good news. While there’s no timeframe on a return of professional sports the leagues are at least starting to consider that possibility and make contingency plans for a return to play. Major League Baseball has been throwing the ball around the room (metaphorically speaking, at least as far as I know) with much talk about playing at least the start of the season in Arizona with no fans. Now the National Hockey League has confirmed that they’re studying the feasibility of returning to play and putting together possible scenarios.

Both league commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have be talking to the media about the possibility of ending our long, miserable drought without hockey. To some extent, the low key media assault has the feel of the NHL putting out some of the proverbial ‘trial balloons’ to see what kind of reaction they get from fans and the sporting press in the United States and Canada. The league knows how US President Donald Trump feels about the need to get sports back in business ASAP:

We all expressed a desire to get sports back. It’s something that for the psyche of the American, and in my case the Canadian, public is very important. Sports can be part of bringing people together, can be part of healing.

But we all agreed that until it’s the right time, there are other more pressing issues than when we come back, and again, everything starts with people’s health and well-being.

One scenario that appears to be getting serious consideration is playing NHL games at neutral sites with or without crowds. Several cities have already approached the league about serving as a host for hockey including US venues in Grand Forks, North Dakota and Manchester, New Hampshire. Bettman is always very diplomatic about not appearing to give Canada preferential treatment but our neighbors to the North could play a big role in the relaunch of the NHL. In fact, holding a majority if not all of the games in Canada has merit for a number of reasons.


One huge reason is obvious: compared to the US, Canada has avoided taking the brunt of the pandemic. The fact that Canada ‘got off easy’ by comparison underscores the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic–they’ve had 23,702 confirmed cases with 674 deaths. It’s downright chilling that we’re talking about 674 deaths being a reasonably desirable scenario. Yet compared to the situation in the United States where there have been 524,514 cases and 20,444 deaths it’s hard *not* to make that comparison. It also appears that Canada has reached a plateau in new cases. 7 of the last 10 days have seen a day to day decline in new cases. The death rate is still high but as we’re well aware here in the US that is something of a ‘trailing indicator’.

Not surprisingly, the most cases and deaths are concentrated in the two most densely populated provinces. 19,895 of the confirmed cases have been reported in Quebec and Ontario. That’s right around 84% which means 3807 cases (16%ish) in the rest of the country. Not much different than what we’ve seen in the US where densely populated states like New York and New Jersey have been hit hard compared to the wide open spaces out West in states like Wyoming and North Dakota. In fact, the Western states of both the US and Canada could see a lot of hockey–we talked about North Dakota earlier and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has also thrown their toque into the ring.


Assuming that the NHL goes with the neutral sites I’d be very surprised if several other Canadian cities get involved. An obvious candidate would be Winnipeg, Manitoba but that isn’t exactly a *neutral* site since the Winnipeg Jets play there. Halifax, Nova Scotia would be a great option with the primary issue being the arena size (just under 11,000 for hockey).

Then again, if the league is going without fans that wouldn’t be an issue which would mean that games could be played in hockey mad Regina, Saskatchewan. Grand Forks, North Dakota would host games at the Ralph Engelstad Arena which has a similar capacity as the arena in Halifax. Moncton, New Brunswick has a 2 year old downtown arena that seats just under 9,000. The Jean Louis Levesque Arena at the University of Moncton is too small (2000ish) but I’d assume the NHL would like to have some decent practice facilities in the area as well. Assuming that Ontario and Quebec are out and also assuming that the league doesn’t want to use any current team’s rink the biggest city that we haven’t mentioned that would fit the criteria would be St. Johns, Newfoundland and Labrador with a 8500 seat rink.

There would be some interesting possibilities in the US as well. Montana has confirmed only 387 COVID-19 cases with 6 deaths and could host games in the 8700 seat First Interstate Arena in Billings. Rapid City, South Dakota has the 10,400 seat Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and is home to the Rapid City Rush of the ECHL. Omaha, Nebraska has the Baxter Arena at the University of Nebraska Omaha that holds 7,800 for hockey and the CHI Health Center that seats 17,000 for hockey. Omaha is one of the largest cities in the US without a pro sports team though the Creighton Blue Jays hoop team packs them in. The Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska is the home court of the Nebraska Cornhuskers hoop team but holds 12,700 for hockey. There are also some low COVID-19 count states on the East Coast including Maine, where the ECHL Maine Mariners play at the 6500 seat Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

In our next article we’ll consider some of the other scenarios for the return of the NHL.

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