Mac Engel: Shortening MLB, NBA, NHL seasons over COVID should mean champions get asterisks

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Whether it’s the Lakers, Yankees, Bruins, LeBron or Trout, anything associated with this season comes with a mask, and an asterisk.

It counts, but not all accomplishments are equal.

While baseball does its typical routine of tripping over itself because of its inability to deal with its players’ union, hockey and basketball are progressing to return.

Everyone is ready to just deal with it.

On Tuesday afternoon, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced definitive plans for the league to start playing again. It last played on March 12 before shutting down due to the coronavirus.

The NHL, typically last amid the major sports in North America, is first in something.

The details are noble and laughable, but what the NHL is getting right is that when it returns it’s playing the playoffs, and that’s it. June is days away, and the true spirit of the NBA, MLB and NHL seasons are all gone.

The NHL’s goal is to get something done for the record books, make a few bucks, and move on to next season ASAP.

Celebrating a Stanley Cup Final with no fans in the stands, as proposed, will ring hallow and look ridiculous. The same for an NBA title in an empty gym in Orlando.

Play it out to complete it, but any and all notable accomplishments from the current campaign will require a, “You see, what had happened was … ”

A global pandemic.

The NHL’s regular season, according to Bettman, is over.

The NHL plans to hold a three-week training camp beginning in June, followed by the playoffs in July held in two undetermined hub cities.

The league playoff format will expand from 16 teams in the 31-franchise league, to 24 for this one summer.

Bettman said 10 cities are being considered as two hubs, one of which is Dallas. The others are Chicago, Columbus, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.

The top 12 teams in each conference make the playoffs, according to the standings when the league paused on March 12. The other teams go into the NHL draft lottery.

The time and the dates of the playoffs are not fixed. Bettman said play will go into the summer and even early fall, and the site selection depends on factors such as that area’s laws and restrictions regarding COVID-19.

The Dallas Stars were heading toward the postseason, but the new format cements it. Using a formula that is based on winning percentage, the Stars’ .594 after 69 games means that they officially finish the regular season in fourth-place in the Western Conference, despite trailing the Edmonton Oilers by one point in the standings. It will be the first time the Stars have made the playoffs in consecutive years since 2007 and ’08.

Here’s Bettman’s plan for how the playoffs will go:

— Top four teams in each conference will play a round robin for first-round seeding. The games will follow regular-season rules, meaning there will be ties and shootouts.

The Stars will play the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights to determine the seeding in the West.

— The remaining eight teams will play a best-of-five series to advance to the first round. Those games will use playoff overtime rules.

— The qualifying round winners will play the top seeds in the first round. The second round will be a best-of-five, or a best-of-seven. (They haven’t decided that yet.)

— The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be a best-of-seven series.

In order to return, the NHL is implementing a series of regulations and protocols for players, officials, coaches and everyone associated with the game to follow.

The NHL’s 22-page memo sent to the league and the players is full of window dressing and noble intentions to satisfy people amid concerns over the coronavirus, and expects much of the measures to be ignored in a short time.

Look for the measures to be implemented, and then quietly not followed. The rules have to put in, but the enforcement will be impractical.

If all goes according to plan, the NHL will have a Cup winner, and a conclusion.

The only other time the NHL was unable to finish with a Stanley Cup Final was 1919. The series between the Seattle Metropolitans and the Montreal Canadiens ended in a 2-2-1 tie.

Members of both teams came down with what was the second wave of a Spanish flu that killed millions globally. Most players recovered from the flu, but only days after the series was canceled, future Hall of Famer Joe Hall of Montreal died.

Pretty sure every sports league wants to avoid anything remotely close to such a scenario.

The circumstances are bizarre, and the NHL did the best it can. All that’s needed now, in addition to a mask, is an asterisk, too.


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