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Inside minor hockey leagues’ pandemic-season plans

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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.”


ECHL

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.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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