As was in the news Monday, the American Hockey League was forced to officially cancel the remainder of its 2019-2020 season and the Calder Cup playoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This came down after a vote from the board of directors.
“After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-2020 season is not feasible in light of current conditions,” AHL president and CEO David Andrews said. “The AHL continues to place paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff and fans and all of their families, and we all look forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-2021.”
This decision was not particularly surprising and the AHL will treat the statistics and standings as of March of 2020 as the way things stand for the whole season.
But it’s what’s to come that could be most interesting, as there’s an awful lot of uncertainty hanging over the balance of the AHL – even into the 2020-2021 season. While the league is focusing its attention on the next year, Andrews and his replacement Scott Howson have their work cut out for them. Howson will take the presidency on July 1 and have to pilot the NHL’s feeder league through an intense period.
First up is the concept of how to play hockey of health restrictions make things interesting.
The AHL’s business model, such as it is, relies on the gate more than anything else to keep the lights on. While the NHL can run games through networks and has a robust system to obtain viewership in mediums other than live audiences, the AHL has no such luck.
“We’re not designed (for that),” said Andrews. “The American Hockey League as it presently operates can not play in front of empty buildings for any sustained period of time.”
COVID-19 has been the single most disruptive force in professional sports and that’s put the AHL in a position they’ve never been in before. Even the Second World War wasn’t enough to shutter the league, which has held a Calder Cup playoff in each season since 1937.
The good news is that the NHL has ponied up the green to ensure AHLers have been paid, even if they weren’t able to finish the season or meet contractual obligations.
The bad news is that, like playing in front of no fans, that’s an untenable system. And that likely means that the AHL won’t begin the new season with its full complement of teams, leaning instead on shared affiliation agreements. That could have an impact on player development for the next few years.
So how will this go? Like all things COVID-19, nobody really seems to know right now. This extraordinary period of history has left few untouched and the AHL is certainly not immune, even as the NHL continues its push to return to play sooner rather than later.