This has been a tough year all the way around, in every aspect, for pretty much everyone. The NHL should by no means be given extra sympathy, but they do face a few unique challenges, particularly when viewed through the lens of their history in the last couple of decades.
All sports, before the pandemic, were earning more and more money every year, but they were still held in comparison. The NHL was still increasingly valuable, but they weren’t gaining at the same rate as the NFL, for example, and more eyes, particularly in the United States are on the NBA during the winter, the peak of the NHL season (usually).
The NHL arguably had the best return from the initial pause. The NBA’s was good, but was perhaps a bit confusing initially, with the conclusion of the regular season occurring in the bubble. The NHL came back to the playoffs, with an extra round added just for kicks. The NHL playoffs are regarded across the sports world as the most intense and entertaining, and now, coming out of a complete absence in sports, the NHL owned the stage and had a brilliant offering. They had momentum.
Now, every other sport has come back, including the NFL, which is in the midst of completing a full season, while the NBA is on track to start their regular season next week. The NHL isn’t going to return until the middle of January. They had some labor disagreements, but a huge problem was their geographic coverage, and the United States’ issues with controlling the virus. Canada doesn’t want teams crossing the border back and forth, so a couple of the most popular teams in the NHL, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, won’t set foot in the United States, perhaps at all during the season.
There was a bit of fortuitous news for the league, however, when the draft occurred. The first overall pick went to the New York Rangers, and this draft had a player in Alex LaFreniere who has the opportunity to be a generational talent.
Of course, Lafreniere won’t get a chance to build his brand before the season, because teams, including the Rangers, don’t want to contend with quarantine protocols with Lafreniere going to and from Canada before training camp begins. And he won’t get to return to his native Quebec at any point this year. The chance to promote Lafreniere among the most rabid fans in the continent, before he starts his career in the largest media market in the country is effectively neutered by the virus, which is eliminating international travel and preventing fans from attending games.
The NHL should have been riding high into the new season, relatively speaking, but the particular features of the league structure put them behind the 8 Ball as they try to get back into the swing of things. It’s frustrating, because things were going well for the league.