Only a few weeks into the NHL’s plan for resuming the 2019-2020 season, there is still plenty of time for things to go awry. Still, given a situation that calls for radical solutions that nobody can really be fully confident will work, the initial assessment of how it’s played out so far should inspire optimism.
The NHL has conducted roughly 1500 tests per day in each of the Hub Cities since Sunday. These tests have been processed in 24 hrs or less and as of today, there have been no positive test results in phase 4.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) July 31, 2020
Compare that to other sports leagues, such as MLS, which has reasonably succeeded in its return yet had to evict two teams from its Orlando bubble. Or the MLB, which has handled its attempt to return play about as well as BP handles oil spills.
Yet even if the NHL manages to get through October with little incident, the legitimacy of the event and merit of awarding the Stanley Cup in these circumstances will inevitably come into question. Games are in a neutral location (except for the Oilers and Maple Leafs, but only sort of) with no crowds. Players will be ramping up immediately into playoff games after more than a four-month absence with only one exhibition game in-between. Any momentum from the regular season is lost. There are 24 participating teams with some funky playoff matchups. A virus could arbitrarily eliminate certain players from participating at any moment.
If Montreal, one of the worst teams in the league this season, wins a few flukey games against the Penguins, to make the playoffs, it’s going to be difficult to sell everyone on the idea that this is truly a tournament of the league’s best.
The NHL, for its part, has tried to counter this by pushing a narrative of how difficult it will be for teams to win under these conditions.
They’re probably not wrong. There are so many new variables and impediments thrown teams’ way. For some teams, winning the Stanley Cup will now require 19 wins rather than the typical 16. They will be battling rust from the long layoff and, although teams will now be healthier than ever before, they’re not going to be in peak game shape both physically and mentally. They now have to battle not only the gauntlet of NHL playoffs but the mental anguish that will come with being cooped up in a hotel without family for multiple months.
Indeed, that will be difficult. It would be even more difficult if the NHL required players to play blindfolded, put three pucks on the ice, and forced teams solve complicated algebra questions after every goal in order for it to count. They could require the two final teams to climb Mount Everest. The key to defining the 2020 Stanley Cup playoff as legitimate is not in proving it to be difficult. Rather, it is the spirit of the affair that is in question. Whether this is a true contest of the best NHL teams pitted against each other in a manner determined by a meaningful regular season.
The NHL did not help itself on this front by offering some teams major consolation, if not incentive, for losing their play-in series. The eight teams who lose the upcoming best-of-five series will be entered in a lottery for the number-one overall pick with each team afforded 12.5% odds at winning the selection. For perspective, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn projects that, assuming they beat Carolina, the Rangers have just an 8.6% chance of making the it as far as the Conference Final. In essence, he asserts the Rangers are more likely to land a franchise player than they are to make a deep playoff run and argues that it’s in their (as well as for other teams’) interest to get eliminated right away.
So does the 2020 Stanley Cup, as currently constructed, “count”? Does it mean anything? What does it mean for something to matter?
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl asserts, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
The NHL postseason was not bestowed upon us as part of the order of the universe, like gravity or elements. It is a social construct that exists because some people found purpose in making it a thing. That purpose is a moving target. Fans of the sport are not here via subpoena but instead presumably feel they get something out of participating. There is no rubric the NHL can follow to create a playoff that achieves objective meaning. It won’t just because Max Pacioretty says it does. Or Jamie Benn. What the 2020 Stanley Cup means, if anything, is a subjective, personal question that you can only answer for yourself.
Frankl goes on to say, “The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
We all have roles to play in society and, to a degree, can create the world want to live in and affect change. But on an immediate and individual level, so much is out of our control. An apathetic virus has altered and constrained our lives in ways that have affected many without invitation. It has affected travel, social interaction, employment, and health. Those are freedoms that we have been deprived of. And to a large extent we can’t do anything about that. Narrowing the scope further, the freedom to hold the 2020 NHL postseason as everyone had hoped — with 16 teams who have nothing to gain by losing, packed arenas in every city, and the momentum of the regular season obvious — is long gone.
This altered, diluted affair is what we have. The freedom that remains is the ability to see it for what it is and decide individually what we hope to get out of it. And, as part of that freedom, there are no correct answers.
If you see this version of an NHL postseason as a counterfeit gimmick? Your stance is valid. If you’re rooting for the Rangers to get a chance at the number-one pick, seeing the long-term merits as more worthwhile than the instant gratification of a few empty-calorie August wins? You have a legitimate point of view. If your fanhood is bound to an unshakable ethos of rooting for your team to win no matter what? That’s your prerogative. And if you’re having a rough time enduring an increasingly depressing world and you’re just happy to have something that feels good and normal for a few hours? Who is anyone to kill that buzz for you?
There’s a whole lot of strife in the world at this present moment and sports are often a looking glass for society’s triumphs and problems. But as far as the players physically stepping on the ice and playing a game, the results don’t really matter and there are no real moral consequences of how it plays out. With so much out of our control, this is a rare chance for each of us to omnipotently decide individually why we’re here and what matters.
Enjoy the games, or don’t, as you see fit. And don’t feel obligated to find permission or validation from others to feel the way you want to about it.