On Sept. 28, the National Hockey League became the first of the so-called “Big Four” North American professional team sports leagues—the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL—to crown a champion in the COVID-19 era; the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history, knocking off the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Cup finals, 2-0.
After shutting down its season in March, the NHL returned to play in August, with 24 teams competing for the Stanley Cup in a postseason that took place in two “bubble” locations: Eastern Conference teams were stationed in Toronto, while Western Conference teams played in Edmonton (once the playoffs reached the Conference Finals round, the remaining four teams played their games in Edmonton). No NHL personnel tested positive in the bubble.
Before Game 6, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joined TIME for a phone conversation from Edmonton, to discuss the keys to managing COVID-19 in the bubble, lessons learned from the experience, what the 2020-2021 NHL season might look like, and more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TIME: On Sept. 28th, news came out that the NHL has conducted 33,174 COVID-19 tests in its Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, with zero positives. What was the key to getting to that number?
Bettman: We understood that we had a responsibility, in the face of COVID-19, to be as safe and as secure as possible. If you go back and you look at the phases we went through, there were four phases, the first one was self-isolation, phase two as we started up in training facilities, and there was some testing locally, phase three was training camp, and there was regular testing, and our belief was once we got to phase four, if we can get safely into the bubble without any COVID-19, if we’re testing everyday and we’re adhering to all the appropriate protocols, we should be O.K.
There are some people who have said this might be the safest place in North America. At the end of the day, there were the protocols that were developed. Our cooperation with the Players’ Association, our medical people and the health authorities, and it was the players and other personnels’ willingness to adhere to those protocols, to take them seriously, that I believe got us to this point.
Is there anything you’ve learned from this unprecedented season that you may apply to future seasons?
We have no expectations that we can do this for an entire regular season. Because that wouldn’t be fair to the players. What we have learned is if you focus on the medical advice, and you follow the data, you can minimize the risk. We announced with the Players’ Association what the return to play format, what the protocols would be.
There was some commentary that I should have, at the same time, decided where we were going. We made it a point not to do that. We only made the decision where to go when we absolutely had to, at the last minute, to effectuate the return to play plan. And the reason for that was I wanted to know exactly the state of COVID everywhere we were thinking of going. We had 10 different places we could go to. We had been gradually eliminating them. But at the time we had to make the decision, some of the places we were seriously considering were spiking. And we decided to go to two places that were the least COVID-intense of any of the cities and most of the places in North America.
Was Florida a place you were considering?
There were places all over. I think Florida had been—this has now been a while ago, you lose track of time—but there were places all over the United States that had asked us to consider them, including Nevada. Which at the time was spiking. So we wanted to go where we thought we could be safe, and we did that by following the data.
Also, we had great cooperation by both Edmonton and the Oilers, by Toronto and the Maple Leafs, and by the health authorities, particularly at the provincial level. We needed the cooperation of the governments at all levels, including and especially the federal government.
Obviously sports leagues like yours have resources—like daily testing, the ability to create bubbles—that other enterprises don’t. Still, is there anything the world at large can learn about managing COVID-19 from the NHL’s experience?
I’m not one to lecture or give the world at large advice. But what we learned was, depending on the circumstances, you could do things to manage the risks. Which is what we were attempting to do. Other than when the players are playing and people are eating, when you walk around the bubble, you’re wearing a mask. And everybody is adhering to it. People are not trying to get out of the bubble. They understand the importance of staying in. They also understand that if they leave they are not coming back.
There were a whole series of things that everybody here had to be willing to adhere to if it was going to work. And we did the best we could. We got the best advice we could. We collaborated and cooperated with the Players’ Association, which was essential. Because this undertaking, the number of moving parts, was a collaborative effort.
Around the U.S., there have been testing shortages and backlogs in getting results. Some sports leagues have been criticized for doing so much testing while so many people struggle to get access to tests. Is that fair?
Part of the decision was, we wouldn’t go to a place where we would interfere the slightest with the needs of the medical community for testing. We purchased all the testing that we used privately. We paid for it. And there was no shortage in any place where we are. So that there was no interference with our use of testing with what anybody else might have needed from a medical standpoint. We went to a place where COVID was most under control. When you’re the most under control, you have a lesser need for testing.
Everything that was going on in sports had been initiated by the players. And my view was, if we were going to take a pause—which I believe was appropriate provided that this was what the players wanted—it wasn’t about making a PR statement, it was about having an authentic reaction to what was going on and trying to be supportive. And that was entirely up to the players. I’m proud of the way they reacted.
A recent ESPN report revealed some dissatisfaction with the NHL bubble: players complained of feeling isolated and that some of the amenities fell short of what was promised. What’s your reaction to the article?
Actually, the feedback that I’ve gotten on that article was twofold. One, I was told by a number of people, either from the players or people who work with the players, that it was terribly unfortunate that all of the sources were anonymous. And it seemed to be a very, very, very tiny minority of players who felt that way.
I bump into players all the time in the bubble. You can always, I suppose, get a person or two who have a different view, provided they would identify themselves. But overwhelmingly, everybody was glad to have the opportunity to complete the season, to have an an opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup. They felt extraordinary safe here.
The Seattle Kraken will start playing in 2021-2022. Does the NHL have any more expansion plans?
We’re not looking at any more expansion for the foreseeable future.
Is there a market, or markets, where you feel the NHL should be?
We’re not focusing on anything other than what we have and where we’re going, namely Seattle.
It wasn’t supposed to glorify violence. What it was supposed to do, and maybe it was misconstrued, was focus on how intense and how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup. It can be a very intense, physically and mentally, gauntlet that has to be run. And it’s not the first time there was a video like that.
Apparently, one of the sports networks in Canada was doing a piece on injuries and I guess the timing was unfortunate. But I’m not sure that we were in a position to be focusing on what a sports network was doing on its shoulder programming in the middle of the Stanley Cup final. But it was unfortunate, and if it was misconstrued we feel badly about that.
Two things about that. Obviously, everything we and our clubs do need to be in compliance with local regulations. And if Texas and Florida are more open than other places, then the buildings can be used, provided the appropriate protocols and social distancing were in place. And I’m told they were.
But you know, the difference between indoor and outdoor, at least in our arenas which are multi-hundred-thousand foot facilities with state of the art air systems, I’m not sure is as accurate as it’s portrayed on a superficial level. Our buildings can be safe. And that’s something we’re going to be working with local authorities on.
The NHL has previously named Dec. 1 as a target start date for the 2020-2021 NHL season. Are you still hoping to make that happen?
December 1 was just a notional date. The likelihood is that we’ll be starting later than that, maybe late December, maybe early January. No timeframe yet has been established. Much like the discussion we had about this return to play, there’s a lot more we need to know about a number of things before we make that decision.
Do you hope to at least be able to phase fans in?
I mean, we certainly would love our buildings to be full. Our fans are an essential part of the energy of our game. Our fans are what make us, among other things, the best sport to attend in person. But tell me what COVID is going to be like. Tell me what the local regulations are going to be around all of our buildings. Tell me what the ease of access is going to be crossing the Canadian-U.S. border. These are all things that are going to have to be accounted for before we can make the decision.
You’ve been a good sport about the booing you annually receive during the Stanley Cup presentation and during the draft. The Draft is coming up on October 6-7. Might some virtual booing be piped in?
You’ll have to tune in to find out.
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Contributor: Sean Gregory