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NHL willing to take gamble on getting through season

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, right, speaks while James Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts International, listens during a news conference in New York on Oct. 29, 2018. (AP file photo)

When the NHL charter flight back from the Edmonton bubble landed in New Jersey, Gary Bettman’s phone started to ring.

The commissioner figured he’d get a couple of weeks to exhale after awarding the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Instead, it was back to work.

Of course, planning for the 2021 season began well before late September. It took a long-term extension of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ union, layers of health and safety protocols, realigned divisions and convincing multiple government agencies that it is safe to play.

The season opens today and Bettman estimates the league will lose over $1 billion even by playing. It’s a gamble everyone was willing to make to keep hockey going during the pandemic.

“It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play,” Bettman said Monday. “We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people, particularly those who are back in isolation or where there are curfews, a sense of normalcy and something to do.”

None of the four major North American men’s professional sports leagues rely as much on attendance as the NHL: Roughly 50% of all revenue comes from ticket sales, concessions and other in-arena elements. That’s why the league and players prioritized extending the CBA before completing last season in twin playoff bubbles; they knew no fans slashes revenue for everyone.

The agreement gave the NHL a blueprint to operate and labor peace through at least 2026.

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