Graziano: NHL's 24-Team Playoff With No Fans Just Won't Be the Same

Andy Graziano
June 11, 2020 - 1:35 pm
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As the NHL inched closer to its return, with an expanded 24-team ‘playoff’ format, the New York Islanders began to prepare for the Florida Panthers, as groups of six players, sans coaches and trainers, got clearance to take the ice for workouts.

Yes, a team that was in 24th place in the entire league at the pause, will be eligible to win the most prized trophy in all of sport. Currently, the team that occupies that spot is the Montreal Canadiens, who trudged through the 2019-20 season, prior to the coronavirus pause, to a record of 31-31-9. 

If you believe this devalues the tournament somewhat, I would have to agree. All the players want, all the fans want, is for their fantastic game to be back. If that means nobody can see it in person, you might not care. I do. I had the unfortunate experience of watching some Bundesliga soccer when it resumed play, to see how the lack of fans affected the experience. It did in a major way. It felt like I was watching a friendly or practice. No emotion through the screen and from the look of it, little on the pitch as well. Are you preparing for Gary Bettman to award the trophy at center ice….with nobody there?

If there is any sport that feeds off its fans more than hockey, I would be quick to politely counter your opinion. Especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where the raw feel of the game is magnified 100 times from anything we appreciated over the prior 82 games. Remember those rookie summer scrimmages everyone attends to get them through the summer? The Islanders have always had a terrific, passionate turnout for them. It will be that …. With nobody there. You can’t possibly expect the quality of play to be where it should be at this time of year. If you do, you haven’t been paying attention to the first 20 games or so of each season.

To always outweigh a negative with a positive, a valuable lesson I’ve learned through my now 49-years, if you’re a fan of teams 17-24, you are super excited, and should be, at the prospect of potentially coming into the play-in round and catching lightning in a bottle. You have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and no matter what other fans might say about it being ‘watered down’ or ‘phony’ or ‘should have an asterisk’, a cup IS a cup. Islanders head coach Barry Trotz seems to agree…

"It's going to be fantastic for the game because you can be in the 12-spot and you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup," the New York Islanders coach told MSG Network via NHL.com. "That's how close the League is. There's parity in the League, and if you hit it right, within two months you can be Stanley Cup champions."

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The Islanders took to the ice for the first time in almost three months, as the league moved forward with phase two of its ‘return to play’ plan. Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Thomas Greiss skated on Monday, along with Scott Mayfield, Devon Toews and Christopher Gibson later in the day. Johnny Boychuk, and his now 100% healed eye, will take to the ice today.

It’s a sign things are moving closer to ‘normal,’ even though nobody knows what that will look like, or what it will mean for them personally. We have watched theories and opinions for months now be debunked or just downright inaccurate. We have seen the statistics, if they can even be trusted, that 98% of cases are mild or better. Yet we simply cannot sit back and ignore a serious virus that has taken the lives of 115,000 Americans and continues, to this day, to put at risk those most vulnerable with underlying conditions or age-related disorders. 

Boychuk put it perfectly to Newsday’s Andrew Gross: “I hope so. But you never know. I’ve seen that there are other leagues that have opened and there’s been outbreaks because of it. It’s tough to say anything about health issues. You just don’t know. Nobody knows.”