Ryan Crelin rides the roller coaster of COVID-19 every day.
“Things are getting better. Things are getting worse. There’s a second wave coming. There’s not a second wave coming,” said Crelin, the commissioner of the ECHL, a professional minor hockey league based in the United States.
“I mean, facts are at a premium these days, but what’s become evident to me is if there was a reasonable and responsible way to return to play in 2020-21, our ownership wanted to do it, the players certainly want to get back to playing, and the fans have shown their desire to have ECHL hockey in their market. Is COVID gone? Absolutely not. Is it something we’re going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future? Absolutely. But the more you work through it, the more you learn. I think you can reasonably and responsibly return to play.”
Crelin’s league returns to the ice in December, having cut its 2019-20 season short because of the pandemic. He has taken part in several conference calls between the National Hockey League and minor leagues such as the ECHL, American Hockey League and Southern Professional Hockey League.
“We certainly have a regular dialogue with other hockey leagues and organizations both here in North America and in Europe,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN. “We have made it a point to share everything we have developed with other hockey organizations. We are all in this together, and we are pulling the same direction.”
The discussions have been open and honest: about teams that have opted out of this season because of local restrictions on fan capacity; about loss of revenue, including local sponsorship money; and about what happens to the best-laid plans when a player, coach or portion of a roster tests positive for COVID-19 during the season.
“They’ve been very supportive and providing their materials and providing access to their medical professionals. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have access to some of those materials,” Crelin said of the NHL. “We’re all going through the same thing. We’re all dealing with the same issues. We may take slightly varied approaches, but there’s not an aspect of our business that this hasn’t touched.”
ESPN spoke with three minor league hockey executives — Crelin, AHL president Scott Howson and SPHL commissioner Doug Price — about their plans for restarting their leagues this season, their concerns about doing so during a pandemic and if they can pull this off.
American Hockey League
Let it never be said that Scott Howson’s first season as American Hockey League president wasn’t a memorable one.
The former Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers executive took over the job on July 1, about two months after the AHL canceled the rest of its 2019-20 regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs. In June, the league announced a “return to play” committee made up of NHL and AHL executives who would help plot a course back to the ice for the league’s 31 teams.
Months later, Howson isn’t sure when those teams will return, where some of them will return or — perhaps most importantly — if all of them will return for the 2020-21 season.
“I’m confident that they’ll all be given the opportunity to decide,” he told ESPN last week. “I think a lot of it will be driven by what the economics are going to look like. I can’t tell you right now that I’m sure 31 teams are going to play. But in talking to all the teams, there’s nobody that’s saying, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Everyone has an optimistic view and are going to try and find a way to make this work. But until we get to an actual start date, what the schedule is going to look like, what the travel is going to be, what the arrangement between the NHL team and the AHL team is going to be, it’s hard for me to say that everyone’s going to participate. There are too many unknowns right now.”
The tentative start date for the AHL is Dec. 4, but Howson said his board of governors is going to be presented with alternate plans within the next few weeks.
“We’re getting close to Dec. 4, and there’s been minimal improvement as far as fan capacity. The virus seems to be getting worse right now. The borders are still closed,” he said. “Maybe Dec. 4 isn’t realistic, that our teams aren’t ready to do that.”
The AHL is the NHL’s top developmental league, so it can’t be too far out of sync with the senior circuit’s eventual schedule. “We haven’t been involved in any of those discussions at the NHL level in terms of what they’re planning to do, whether it’s a modified bubble or whatever,” Howson said. “We don’t have to start the same day or weekend or week. But we’ve gotta be somewhat in alignment with them so that when they get going, they have access to a player pool, and their players are playing.”
Access to players is the main reason the AHL is considering a temporary realignment (and relocation) of three of its franchises to Canada: the Stockton Heat, the California-based affiliate of the Calgary Flames; the Bakersfield Condors, also based in California and the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate; and the Utica Comets, the New York-based affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. The AHL affiliates of the NHL’s other four Canadian teams are already based in the country.
In other words: The AHL could have an all-Canadian-team division, much like the one the NHL is considering for its next season.
“It’s strictly tied to the border, what the border looks like when we start to play. And I think it’s probably the same with the NHL, right? If the border is open, then maybe they don’t have to go an all-Canadian division, either. It’s not something I’m committed to. I’d rather have all our teams play in all of our markets,” Howson said. “Nothing is off the table here. It just doesn’t make sense, if the border is closed, to be developing players in the U.S. that [teams] can’t get their hands on in case of injuries or recalls.”
Howson doesn’t have a minimum number of games in mind to ensure that next season is legitimate in the eyes of players, teams and fans. His main concern is when the league will start. Then the rest of the details will fall into place.
Harder to predict is who might be able to watch these games. The AHL averaged 5,538 fans per home game last season, led by Cleveland (9,043) and dragged down by Stockton (2,781).
“Just having some capacity for fans in the building is a big, big issue for us,” he said. “If we don’t have that, then that’s going to limit some teams on their desire and ability to play.”
Teams and arenas are already in communication with local governments regarding the potential to have fans at AHL home games next season, including discussions of what COVID-19 precautions they’ll need to take to make that possible.
“Right now, we have seven of our markets that can host, to varying degrees, people in the stands. We’re hoping that’s going to improve. But ticket sales are the largest economic driver in our world,” Howson said.
Another challenge: selling tickets, given that many people who normally would have sold them were laid off or furloughed when the season was paused and then canceled.
“Many of our teams have furloughed their revenue-drivers, their sales staff, because nobody’s thinking about season tickets right now. Some of our teams have kept staff on. There’s a wide variance of what teams have done,” Howson said. “A lot our teams are going to have to ramp up not just ticketing staffs but their whole staffs when we know when we’re going to start.”
The AHL is working with its team business services on when teams should start season-ticket drives for this year and when they should start them for the following season. The prime selling time for season tickets is typically in the first three months of the year, and that’s right when the 2020-21 season is expected to begin.
Howson said the advantage that all North American hockey leagues have right now is the ability to watch how other pro sports leagues are navigating life in the pandemic, from testing protocols to travel to changes on the fly if there’s a positive test on a team — as in the NFL, which has shuffled games on its schedule.
A minor hockey league could do that. Or it could swap one opponent for another.
“We’ve gotta consider that. We’ve gotta be flexible. We’re not 100 percent on weekends, but we’re heavily focused on the weekend. So there are days where you can stretch into the week and replay some games there. It’s probably easier at our level than it is on other levels,” Howson said.
All options remain on the table for the AHL, which hopes to minimize the negative economic impact of a truncated season with a question mark in the box score where attendance would usually be listed.
“We’re hopeful. Our economics are different, obviously, in terms of the fan capacity and the price point and all that. We’re hopeful we can find a way to make it work economically for everybody. So I wouldn’t say we’re just trying to get through it,” Howson said. “But there’s a certain amount of that for some of our teams. This year isn’t going to look right. It isn’t going to feel right. It probably might cost some teams some money. Everybody’s gotta deal with that.”
While the AHL waits to see if all of its teams will return for the 2020-21 season, the ECHL has already had two teams opt out through the league’s COVID-19 Voluntary Suspension policy, an existing rule in the ECHL charter that was given a 2020-appropriate retitling.
The first were the Atlanta Gladiators, an affiliate of the Boston Bruins, who opted out on Oct. 9. “In accordance with state and local COVID-19 recommendations, the Infinite Energy Arena has implemented a 25% capacity limit on all events with stringent social distancing. As a business rooted in ticket and sponsorship revenue, such a capacity reduction greatly hinders the team’s ability to conduct regular business. This has forced the suspension,” the team said.
On Oct. 20, the Norfolk Admirals opted out, with CEO Patrick Cavanagh calling it “a grueling decision.” The current statutes for COVID-19 in Virginia state that only 1,000 fans could attend Admirals games at The Scope arena.
Both teams are aiming to return to the league in 2021-22.
What happens to the players from the teams that opt out? They become free agents this season. The ECHL and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association are working on what that free agency means for the 2021-22 season and players’ potential returns to teams that opted out.
Crelin, the ECHL commissioner, said, “We’ve tried to lay out the options for all our teams so that each team can make their own decision. It’s certainly not normal protocol. But we want to get back to hockey. Every jurisdiction is a little bit different, and so providing our teams options seemed to be the best solution.”
Thus, the ECHL’s 2020-21 season actually has two opening nights. Thirteen teams will start a 72-game season on Dec. 11, including three teams based in Florida. The remaining teams in the 26-team league that haven’t opted out will begin a 62-game schedule “upon jurisdictional approval” on Jan. 15. The league has released a schedule through Jan. 14.
The league, which worked with the PHPA on this format, has yet to determine what its postseason will look like, other than the fact that teams will be seeded via points percentage, given the disparity in number of games played.
“I don’t think there’s any secret that when you look at the 13 teams opening on Dec. 11, it’s because their jurisdictions are permitting them to have some diminished capacity,” Crelin said, adding that the ECHL’s average attendance is 4,500 fans per game, but some teams are “well above that” for most home games. Atlanta averaged 4,075 fans last season, and Norfolk had 3,203 on average.
One area of concern for the ECHL is local sponsorship.
“I think it was certainly something that concerned us throughout the summer and continues to concern us as it relates to the mom-and-pops, whose industry could have just as much been catastrophically affected as our industry,” Crelin said. “So we get all of that. We realized that there will be sponsors that aren’t able to return, and you know, it’s something that we need to account for and have accounted for.
“But the alternative is not great, either — if you miss an entire season, trying to bring back your corporate support after taking an entire year off. While we certainly see the economy being affected and certain industries being hit harder than others, we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to try and put this season on to maintain our corporate support as a whole.”
Although the local economies for teams have taken a massive hit, Crelin believes that the ECHL has always existed as a low-cost entertainment option for those communities. “Pre-COVID, we were the value proposition, and we maintain that,” he said. “Our average ticket price is $16. We think that that’s a very fair value, and we’re also dealing with diminished capacities, and I would tell you that the response from our fans has been very accepting of that fact.”
ECHL fans, players and teams are also going to have to accept how much will change because of the pandemic.
There are “back of the house” safety mandates from the league. The ECHL and the players are working on “outside of the facility” protocols. The teams, arenas and local jurisdictions are figuring out how to safely bring fans back to the arenas. “We want to put in as many preventive measures as possible and, after that, address any issues that arise,” Crelin said.
That includes issues such as positive tests, which the commissioner sees as an inevitability, given what happened in the NFL and MLB while not playing in “bubbles.” He has been especially focused on the NFL and the way that league has moved games around its schedule after positive COVID-19 tests. In lieu of canceling games, the ECHL has discussed swapping opponents for a weekend series if the road team can’t make the date, for example. But a variety of factors have to be taken into account, including distance traveled, when teams last played and other caveats that will determine feasibility.
“I think the word that we’ve used time and time again is ‘nimble,'” Crelin said. “To just say universally, ‘Yeah, we’re going to slide in another team,’ you’ve just got to look at all the facts there. But you’re right: It’s going to happen. So we’re going to have some postponements. We may even have canceled games.”
Less than two months from the expected start of its season, the ECHL has a sense of which teams are playing, which teams aren’t, a season format and a schedule through mid-January. It’s a start.
“Even though we’ve accomplished a lot to date, we haven’t dropped the puck yet. All we do know is that uncertainty is around every corner,” Crelin said. “I suppose the fear of the unknown — that will always be looming throughout the season. I mean, even once a vaccine comes out and is available, we still don’t know how many people will take it, what that does to jurisdictions. There’s no historical reference on this.”
What Crelin believes he does know is how much a return to the ice will mean for his franchises and their fans. “Part of who we are in our communities is the escape for people and the ability to provide entertainment and be a part of the healing process,” he said. “I think our communities need us now more than ever.”
Southern Professional Hockey League
The ECHL has had two teams opt out. The Southern Professional Hockey League has had five of its teams opt out of playing the 2020-21 season — a rather significant number for the 10-team pro league.
SPHL commissioner Doug Price began hearing from teams about opting out of the 2020-21 season in the latter half of the summer.
“Once we saw that certain states were being more aggressive in terms of reopening and certain states were really biding their time, we had to face reality that we weren’t going to have 10 teams playing,” he told ESPN last week.
“Ultimately, we ended up with five,” he said before quickly adding the caveat: “Well, right now we’ve got five. You never know what can happen.”
The Birmingham Bulls, Huntsville Havoc, Knoxville Ice Bears, Macon Mayhem and Pensacola Ice Flyers are set to play a 42-game regular-season schedule. The SPHL has yet to determine a postseason format. The season is set to kick off on Dec. 26. “We have a lot of teams that like to play that week between Christmas and New Year’s. That gives us that holiday week to help supplant weekends, especially with shorter schedule and all,” Price said. “I must have done nine different versions of the schedule with varying numbers of teams and different start times. The more things went along in terms of COVID, we felt the longer we could wait, the better it would be for us to get things going.”
The Evansville Thunderbolts, Fayetteville Marksmen, Peoria Rivermen, Quad City Storm and Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs will sit out the upcoming season and prepare to return for the 2021-2022 campaign.
Five teams seems about right to Price. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t have a three-team league where they just play each other every weekend,” he said. “That wouldn’t be good for the fans or the teams.”
All players named to a protected list or signed to a training camp tryout with those opt-out teams will become free agents. The five teams that opted out will retain the rights to their protected-list players for the 2021-22 season.
Price said the SPHL considered having a draft among the five active teams but instead decided to allow players to become free agents for this season. “We really wanted to make sure we gave them an opportunity to play this season, but we also wanted to make sure that the teams that had properly maintained the rights to those players had an opportunity to get those players back when they reenter the league in 2021-22,” he said.
Price believes the quality of hockey is going to be outstanding in the SPHL this season, given the deeper player pool, one that could become even deeper with the availability of college players whose conferences aren’t active. But there’s a trickle-down to this influx of players, as teams will have to drop players who expected to return to make room for the ringers.
That’s a delicate balance. “Teams are going to have to make decisions between the guys who they recruited over the summer versus ones that could be available to them from the [opt-out] teams,” Price said. “I think you’ll see a mix of them: With the players being able to go back to their original teams, you don’t want to have eight-to-10 guys that could be gone next year. So they might not be these huge all-star teams.”
The SPHL averages 3,145 fans per home game. The teams that decided to return this season felt comfortable with their “individual capacities” in working with their arenas and under the restrictions placed on them by local and state governments. The Pensacola Ice Flyers, for example, are targeting 3,000 to 3,300 fans with social distancing, including use of “pods” in the crowd like we’ve seen in MLB and the NFL. The team averaged 3,647 fans last season.
“In one market, they might be able to make a go of it if they only get 2,000 fans. In another market, they might need to get closer to 3,000 to justify playing,” Price said. “The hope is that as we get through the winter, that the [capacity] could increase. It’s a lot of projection at this point.”
Like the ECHL, the SPHL derives much of its revenue from ticket sales and local sponsorships. The latter is a concern for Price. “It’s been a mixed bag. Obviously, millions of businesses have been affected,” he said. “Within our local markets, there have been smaller mom-and-pop businesses that are key sponsors for our teams and have struggled through the pandemic. So our teams are being very conscious of that in working on this season and beyond.”
“We don’t want teams to go all-in this year and not really have a chance to be successful or break even financially and then come back in worse shape next season. This is just going to be one of those weird seasons where you’re going to have to do what you need to do.”
The SPHL has a return-to-play committee made up of several governors and Price. John Sapp, one of the owners in Macon, is an orthopedic surgeon who has been writing COVID-19 protocols for his practice and has been an influence for the league.
“Like most leagues, we’ve compiled a long list for what the teams need to do,” Price said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ in dealing with [a positive test] and finding a way to get through it.”
That includes moving games around the schedule, as the NFL has done.
“We have to be flexible. If a team can’t play for some reason, could we switch someone else in there? Our teams are close enough together that maybe they can flip-flop weekends or a road team becomes a home team. We just need to have our options open,” Price said.
Limiting those options — not just for the SPHL but also for other U.S. minor leagues — is building availability. “It’s funny, even though we have the hockey teams in there, we get bumped for concerts. All the concerts and all the events that got suspended with us, they’re all looking for early dates in 2021, so that overlapped with us,” Price said. “Honestly, the revenue from a big concert is going to dwarf what we do at a reduced capacity. That’s something we’ve dealt with.”
Price is approaching this season with optimism, believing that if the SPHL can get through the winter and play into the spring, the capacity numbers could rise. “Pensacola might be able to play in front of a full house in March and April. It’s hard to say. But for the teams that are sitting out, those numbers just didn’t move enough,” he said.
“There are cities in the ECHL that are like ours — that there’s potentially not enough fan capacity or allowance right now to go forward. Same thing with the American League. We’re all kind of in the same boat.”
These leagues and the NHL are navigating uncharted waters together.