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WAGMAN: A Strange World for Hockey

Warning: I will get personal during this piece.

We live in strange times. The world is dealing with a viral pandemic unlike anything seen since the Spanish Flu withered away in late 1920. There were other pandemics that have passed that through in the intervening century that have killed at least 1 million people, including a pair of Influenza A viruses in the late 50s and late 60s that did some serious damage.

I will exclude the HIV/AIDS pandemic from this piece, as even though it has taken many more people than all but the Spanish Flu, we have long ago learned how it is contracted and how to prevent its spread. Unlike the flu, it is not airborne.

SARS caused a tremendous fear early this century, especially as Canada seemed to be a hub. But when the dust cleared, only 44 people were confirmed to have died from the illness in Canada and fewer than 800 deaths were attributed to the strain globally. That is a lot, but there were almost as many deaths from COVID-19 in New York City alone on Friday.

Ebola was also really scary when it broke out in a big way in West Africa in 2013. Outside of a few travelling healthcare professionals though, there were very few cases outside of the region of the illness’ origin. Over a three year period covering a number of outbreaks, over 11,000 people died.

All of that was scary. My sincerest condolences to anyone who was impacted directly by those illnesses, or who saw loved ones suffer. They were serious matters, all. COVID-19 was detected around four months ago, in Wuhan, China. It has spread exponentially around the globe, with more confirmed positive cases, and more serious cases, and more deaths every day. To date (April 4), we are close to 65,000 dead.

The cost of COVID-19 is not only measured in the dead, may their memories bring comfort to their loved ones, but also in the complete disruption it has brought to society. Per the World Health Organization, there are over 1.2 million who have thus far been confirmed as having contracted the virus, one of whom is my wife.

A pre-school teacher, her school closed at the end of day on March 20. Shortly thereafter, the school board announced that one teacher had tested positive for COVID-19. The following Wednesday, my wife began to feel a scratchiness in her throat and feverish. We immediately cloistered her in the master bedroom of our family home and she slept for the bulk of the next three days. Finally, on the Saturday, she felt well enough to drive herself to the closest testing site. There, she was confronted by two medical professionals in hazmat suits who took her details and instructed her to wait in her car for her turn. Around one hour later, someone came to take a swab sample from deep in her nasal cavity. She was told to go home and that she would be contacted within 72 hours with the result.

The following day, March 29, she was called in the evening with the news that she had tested positive. As symptoms had begun on the 25th, that was the start of her two week isolation sentence. She was also told that all symptoms need to have completely abated for three full days before she would be “safe” to exit her one-room prison. If the symptoms are still present after 11 days, then her quarantine would last for longer than 14 days. Tomorrow night is her moment of reckoning.

Thus far, she – and our daughter and myself – have been lucky that her symptoms never escalated beyond a mild temperature and an intermittent cough. She lost her sense of smell as well. The fever is not completely gone, but it is close. The cough seems to have petered out with only residual rawness in her throat causing a brief eruption two or three times daily. We are optimistic that she will recover fully and soon.

Beyond the dead and the ill, the economy has also ground to a halt, with millions across North America seeing hours and pay reduced, or outright losing their jobs. The stock market has taken a series of significant hits as well. Once again, this has impacted my household. Two weeks ago, I began a new day job. All training and work would be remote until further notice, but on day nine in the position, the company announced that the financial situation imposed by our clients all being closed has called for drastic measures. All employees would move to a four day work week, and an accompanying 20% reduction in pay. Some employees would be furloughed for 14 weeks. Those would keep their health benefits in the interim, but no pay.

As a new employee, I was lumped with the latter group. We should be fine. My wife will recover and we will emerge from my forced time off without too much damage. But it hurts.

I could talk about the psychological pain of all of this. How I had to think about what would happen if my daughter or I would begin to feel symptoms while my wife was still quarantined. Or how every tickle in my throat announced itself as a giant tease. Or what if my wife’s symptoms got worse. Or how her imprisonment with an uninvited virus was a strain onto itself. Or countless other dark thoughts that have passed through under my roof in the last 10 days, but we have all had enough. Enough in the real world, and enough in our sporting escapes, which are also on indefinite hold.

If only for our collective mental health, let’s talk some hockey.

Normally, I focus on the prospects, USHL and NCAA in particular, but those leagues have been cancelled for the duration. The NHL (and AHL) are still listed as suspended, and the outcome is still a distant unknown.

Reports on the midframe of the league – NHL and team executives alike, as well as the Players’ Union – is that any resumption would have to be considered creatively. Most of the suggestions floating around the internet focus on alternate season endings, including additional teams in the playoffs, moving right to the playoffs without resuming the regular season, and playing throughout the summer, if possible. Also of note is that the league is prioritizing having a complete 2020-21 season regardless of the ending of this season.

I want to discuss something completely different. Something that no one else (to my knowledge) has brought up, and something I fully believe would both be amazing, and would never happen.

I am suggesting combining the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons into one mega-season. Stop worrying about when the pandemic will pass and when arenas can be opened to paying customers again. I suspect that, if it doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, it won’t happen for a long time. So don’t worry about a playoffs now. Or a draft. Or NHL awards.

How would it work?

When play is able to be resumed, the standings remain as they are. The league would come up with a schedule that would take us from whenever the start date is (I think a few weeks of exhibition games would be wise) to when the 2020-21 regular season would be expected to end, making sure to have all teams play an equal number of games. Trading can be re-opened for another lengthy window once play resumes as well.

At the end of this season of 120-140 games, we have a proper playoffs as only the NHL can truly provide for us.

Before looking at ancillary items like the draft and awards, let’s take a minute to discuss a historical incident which caused a sports league to combine multiple seasons.

Some of you may know that I hold Israeli citizenship. I served in the Israeli Defense Force from 1998-2000. To my everlasting good fortune, those two years were among the most peaceful in the history of the nation. The history of war in that country is tragic, to say the least.

Like many other nations around the world, soccer is king in Israel. Like many global soccer leagues, the Israeli system is multi-tiered, with the bottom team or teams from the top league facing relegation to a lower tier, being replaced by the top team or teams from the second league. In 1966-67, the league was best by riots due to suspected corruption and match fixing.

Fans of the bottom feeder teams in the top league were very upset that their team seemed to be facing relegation due to the corruption and tensions were high. In response, the Israeli Football Association (IFA) decided to suspend all promotions and relegations and combine the results from 66-67 and 67-68 into one mega table. The thinking being that any outcomes that were tainted would be diluted in the longer term standings.

The situation in today’s NHL is very different. The Red Wings are not in danger of being relegated to the AHL. No one (credibly) suspects match fixing or corrupt referees affecting the outcomes of games. Even so, we are in a situation where the integrity of a championship season is in doubt due to factors beyond our control.

So why not combine the seasons? Why throw out everything that took place across 70-odd games for 31 teams if we can’t mark the season with a Stanley Cup title?

What do we do with awards? No need for them now. We can award them next season just as well. And why not borrow a page from Major League Baseball and split the awards by conference? More awarded players, more fun. Does it really make sense that we award the same amount of Norris Trophy’s now, with 31 teams, as we did in the 50s and 60s, when the league had only six teams? Same for the Hart, Vezina, and the rest.

The draft? This is tougher, but bear with me. Many in the scouting world have disdain for the 18 year old draft. Players have not yet finished developing physically, much less mentally, cognitively, emotionally, or vis-à-vis skill. I have heard the call for it to be pushed back to 19 more than a few times. By moving the age of eligibility back now, we ensure that the same group of players under consideration now would remain so next year, and the pool would not be supersized by a double class. The amateur players can continue to play wherever they are (although I would imagine that a player of Alexis Lafreniere’s caliber would try to catch on in Europe for a year, a-la Auston Matthews) and scouts would have another year of growth to consider before making a call.

The new age range for the draft could be maintained going forward and the players currently on track to top the 2021 draft class would simply be the frontrunners for the class of 2022 instead.

This way, all traded picks can be resolved by simply moving them one year into the future. Conditional ones as well.

The main challenge to implementing this type of solution would be contractual. The NHLPA would have to agree, en masse, to extend all contracts by one year at the same rate. The teams would need to agree as well, which might be a snag for teams employing players on bloated, overpriced contracts. This could also be extended to the AHL, to allow teams to continue to use their systems “next season” as if it were still “this season.”

It’s complicated, but it might be the only thing that gives the last seven months some meaning without any loss to integrity.

Did I miss anything? Does my idea bother you so much that you want to throw your laptop from the balcony?

Please tell me (@rawagman). I crave human contact more than ever.

Either way, please stay safe and stay healthy.