The confession bursts out like a puck in the middle of the window: “We would save more money by not playing. We’re going to lose more at the team and league level playing, but the owners all agree, because they know how important it is to our fans and our sport. “ Gary Bettman, the boss of the North American Ice Hockey League (NHL), justifies the resumption, Wednesday, January 13, of the prestigious North American ice hockey league.
This comes three months late due to the crisis due to Covid-19, which forced the previous season to stretch until the end of September, in two health bubbles in Canada. Above all, this return is taking place as the NBA, the American basketball league, which took over on December 22, 2020, is facing a wave of game postponements due to the multiplication of cases of Covid-19 among players.
If the principle of the bubble has been ruled out for this recovery, the season will be played behind closed doors in almost all the rinks. However, among the four major North American sports leagues (basketball, baseball, American football, hockey), the NHL is the one that depends the most on attendance: about 50% of revenues come from the sale of tickets and attendance. the public (merchandising, sale of drinks, etc.). Consequence: the losses would run into billions of dollars, according to Mr. Bettman.
Reduced number of matches and trips
Since she decided to play, the League tried to do it as quickly as possible: no preparation match was organized. Each franchise will play 56 regular-season games (down from 82) over 115 days, before attacking the playoffs in May.
“It’s going to be very intense, a bit like the playoffs”, says Colorado Avalanche forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, one of three French players in the NHL – along with Antoine Roussel (Vancouver Canucks) and Alexandre Texier (Columbus Blue Jackets):
“There is a risk because you have to be physically ready. We will start with four games in nine days when we have not played since September. “
A 100% Canadian division has been created to accommodate the country’s seven franchises
In order to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading due to too many trips, the calendar offers several “back-to-back” matches: the teams face each other twice in a row within divisions that have been reorganized to reduce distances. A 100% Canadian division was even created to welcome the seven franchises of the country to the maple leaf, a first in the history of the League!
A health protocol has been put in place including a daily test for players. “Generally, at 7 am, we receive the result of the day before”, explains Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who concedes that there is still a risk of entering the ice with the virus, even if all precautions are taken to minimize contact.
“We are no longer allowed to eat at the rink. Our chef prepares packaged and individualized portions that we eat at home. “
The measures imposed by the League have not prevented the detection of cases of Covid-19: 27 players have tested positive in nine teams. With 17 contaminations, the Dallas Stars have already seen their schedule turned upside down by the postponement of their first three meetings.
For Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, “We have to hope that the players are smart about the protocol. Personally, when traveling, I am unlikely to leave the hotel much. Because if I am in contact with a person who has the virus, I will spend seven days without having the right to train ”. If the health crisis requires it, the League has said it is ready to organize matches in one or more “Neutral sites” located in the area of each division.
Catching up in the fight for racial equality
On the eve of this new season, the NHL has also chosen to get involved in the movement to fight for racial and social equality. Thus, players will wear on their helmets, until the end of February, a sticker celebrating the 63e anniversary of the first game of a black player in the League, Willie O’Ree, whose number 22 will be retired by his team from the Boston Bruins.
A way for the League to redeem itself, after having come under much criticism for having followed from afar the boycott movement launched in July by basketball players in the NBA. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, one of the rare Métis players in a historically white league, had been on the front line to speak out for the hockey players who had gone on strike for two days.
“I would have liked the NHL to talk to players about it faster, instead of going through what the NBA did. What struck me was that the players came to ask me questions. I had to explain to them the different situations I experienced, even in France: the walks with my stick and my hockey buddies where I was the only one who was asked for his papers. Or the sly looks and thoughts in the rinks. “
Engaged in a season on a thread, the League is playing big and hopes to experience an unprecedented parenthesis. “The ambition is to go to the end: have a fantastic season on the ice, a great playoffs, present the Stanley Cup [le trophée remis au vainqueur]. And then the world is back to normal for the 2021-2022 season ”, said Gary Bettman, whose popularity among North American hockey fans has always suffered. “Anything that could happen beyond that will be great. “ This time, no one will contradict him.
The French team in the sights
At 35, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare begins his second season with the Colorado Avalanche by facing the Saint-Louis Blues on the night of Wednesday 13 to Thursday 14 January. The goal for the Rockies franchise is clearly to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in its history. After Cristobal Huet, champion in 2010 with Chicago, Bellemare would be the second French to achieve the feat. “Last season, the team was scary but unfortunately we had too many injuries. This year, we have the team to win and we’re not hiding to say it “, he asserts.
If the season smiles until the end of July for the Avalanche, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will be able to make a major meeting with the French team: the Olympic qualifying tournament. To compete in the Beijing Olympics in 2022 – where his younger sister Rose-Eliandre walked the Olympic carpet in gymnastics in 2008 – the Blues will have to finish first ahead of Italy, Hungary and Latvia which will host this tournament at the end of August. in Riga. “I have never played the Olympics and it may be my last chance to realize the dream that I have always had. The NHL has become a reality but has never been a dream for me. “
The Blues have not played in the Olympics since 2002 with, on the ice, a certain Philippe Bozon, now coach of the France team, and the first French player to play in the NHL, in the 1990s.