Best Season Plan During COVID-19: The NHL



The NHL had zero positive tests out of all the players during its season.

For sports fans, the prospect of not having an end to the 2019-2020 season due to COVID-19 was a horrible one; however, the majority of leagues found a way to end their seasons safely. Nevertheless, this does beg the question: which league had the most successful plan to keep the players, their families, and staff safe from the virus? The National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) all successfully completed their seasons and the National Football League (NFL) has recently started their season. 

In my opinion, the NHL did the best job in terms of creating a safe COVID-proof plan for the players. First, let’s take a look at the other leagues’ plans, and how well or poorly they fared.

Let’s start with the NBA. The NBA shut down all games in March and restarted its season on July 20, 2020. Each of the 22 participating teams were set to play eight regular-season games. Finals began on August 17th, and continued through October, until the Lakers took home the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy. The NBA planned to have all players live in the same “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida. Players played, slept, practiced, and ate in the bubble, and were restricted to its boundaries until each team’s season ended. Although 31 of the NBA’s players did test positive, those players were removed from the bubble to quarantine. Inside the bubble, there was not a single positive case, out of the approximately 3400 players and staff housed there. This is pretty incredible, given that they were there for nearly 90 days. Kudos should go to those who designed the rules in the bubble, which limited contact between people and maximized sanitation of frequently-used objects.

Next, let’s talk about MLB. The MLB season was delayed from its usual springtime start to late July, and continued until late October, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were crowned the World Series champions after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays. The MLB took a different approach: instead of a “bubble,” teams travelled to each other’s home stadiums for games (except for the Toronto Bluejays, who due to Canada’s strict quarantine rules, played at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, NY). When asked why the MLB chose not to use the “bubble” method, Commissioner Rob Manfred stated that the MLB was too large and wouldn’t be able to hold all 60 regular season games in a bubble. The MLB did decide that no fans would be allowed at games, as did the NBA. 

Yet the MLB was not anywhere near as successful as the NBA, given that 48 players tested positive during the season. Furthermore, there has been a lot of controversy around cases, especially those on the LA Dodgers. When the Dodgers won the World Series, one of their players who had tested positive for COVID-19 (Justin Turner) was originally playing in the game but was removed part way through. Yet, when the Dodgers won, he was allowed to celebrate with his team on the field, causing multiple other players, staff, and family members to test positive.

Now, on to the NFL. The NFL decided to start games around the regular season time, without a preseason. Games are currently still being held in stadiums without fans. There is also no “bubble” system, just like MLB. Stadiums and locker rooms have a new format that allows more space between players. Many people had concerns with the NFL, due to the physical nature of the sport, and for good reason. Despite these concerns, the NFL has had only 26 positive cases so far. The season isn’t over, however. Even though the NFL’s COVID-19 case numbers have been less than that of the MLB, the general impact has been greater. The NFL has rescheduled many games due to safety concerns, which shows that the league is taking this seriously and following proper precautions. 

Last, but certainly not least – the NHL. As previously stated, the NHL had the best COVID-19 plan. After the spring shutdown, the NHL held its first games in late July, leading towards a reconstructed playoffs plan. The league completed the season successfully, and the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars to become the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions. Matches took place in two “hubs” in Canada (Toronto and Edmonton). The “hubs” were similar to the NBA’s “bubble” system. Since the playoffs are strictly kept between the Eastern and Western Conferences, it was easy to split teams up into each of the hubs. Eastern Conference teams played in Toronto, while Western Conference teams played in Edmonton. 

The NHL had zero positive tests out of all the players, which is quite extraordinary. This success is due to the fact that there were extremely strict protocols in place for players, and staff, but also because the “hubs” were in Canada, where case numbers have been drastically lower than in the U.S. I think that the most important lesson that other leagues can take from the NHL is to consider implementing a “bubble” or a “hub” system, and to restrict who is allowed to travel in and out of the system. In upcoming seasons, especially if COVID-19 case numbers are still on the rise, using the NHL’s methods will be helpful because sports leagues should always prioritize the health of their players, families, and staff.