|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
I'll clarify upfront that this is an opinion piece.
Reports this week started to make something that I've felt for a little while more real: We might be skipping this season in the AHL.
AHL guru Patrick Williams noted that AHL teams will need at least eight weeks to get ramped up ahead of any start date they select. They have to sort out hundreds of things on the ice and off to make the season successful, and it will be a marathon at sprint speeds to get it done. Not to mention that most teams have furloughed front office workers, and they need to either bring them back or hire new ones, if they've moved on, which many likely have.
With a stated earliest possible start date of December 4th, eight weeks of lead time puts us at October 9th. That's three weeks from now. In three weeks, do you think that the league, its teams or any of us will know enough about the trajectory of this thing to make plans for December? Health officials are already warning that it's going to get much worse in the winter, so I'm going with no. The EIHL in the UK has already decided to suspend their season facing much of the same challenges that would affect the AHL.
If I'm being honest, the December 4th start date always seemed like a pipe dream. It's the middle of flu season, the heart of the school calendar, and a week after the Thanksgiving holiday where, given past behavior, it is clear that Americans will ignore health guidelines and engage in indoor gatherings with family from across the country.
It's clear that the bubble model is the only sustainable way to have a sports season in the current pandemic climate. For the NHL and the NBA, it's an expensive but feasible model. In the AHL, it is not. The fans make the league possible. Without lucrative media rights contracts, the AHL cannot have a bubble.
There are also travel complications for a league that has four teams north of the border. The Canada-US border is still closed and shows no signs of opening anytime soon.
At this point, it isn't even clear what the NHL is doing for 2020-21. There is little appetite for an entire season spent in a bubble, per reports from NHL insiders. We can all understand why, having lived through varying degrees of lockdown ourselves this year. The AHL depends on the NHL for most of their players via assignment. Notably, prospects have already started being assigned to Europe where there is at least going to be a hockey season in some of those leagues.
With all this said and contemplating a million other challenges we haven't even considered, I don't think it's going to happen. Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns on the season, and it just makes more sense to scrap the year and go again when you can put up a full 76 game schedule. I will rejoice if I am wrong. But, unfortunately, I think Texas Stars hockey is on ice until October 2021.
I'll await my email from the league's head of PR telling me why I'm wrong.