What would happen if the National Hockey League held the Stanley Cup Playoffs and nobody came? The Pittsburgh Penguins are hoping to find out.
On May 27, the NHL announced that Pittsburgh is among the 10 cities being considered as one of two host “hubs” for the Stanley Cup playoffs, as the league tries to find a way to safely conclude its 2019-20 season amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Chief among those restrictions is that no fans will be permitted into the arena for any of the games.
“We’re honored to place a bid and we’re honored to be a finalist,” Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president of communications said. “We know it’s a strong bid and we think it’d be great for the city.”
When the league announced its plan for resumption of play, it asked for bids from NHL cities that could meet some (or all) of a set of criteria, including a low number of COVID-19 cases, testing availability, and government regulations regarding the pandemic.
Pittsburgh scores well in those three categories. The number of COVID-19 cases has remained relatively low since the beginning of the pandemic, and quality testing is available via the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center network, which also partnered on the bid. And as of Friday, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Butler County are all the “green phase” of the state recovery plan, the least restrictive set of regulations in the commonwealth.
The league is more than familiar with Pittsburgh as a hub for the Eastern Conference playoff games. The Penguins have hosted two Stanley Cup Finals, a 2011 Winter Classic and an NHL Draft. Pittsburgh’s bid also includes access to the Penguins’ UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex practice facility in Butler County.
“We’ve had so many big NHL events here in recent years,” McMillan said. “There’s just a comfort level.”
The league will choose one city for the Western Conference playoffs and another for the Eastern Conference. The other nine cities in contention to host 12 of the 24 playoff teams are Las Vegas; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.; Dallas; Chicago; Los Angeles; Toronto; Vancouver; and Edmonton.
Although it seems natural that one of the two cities would be in Canada, that country’s current 14-day, mandatory self-quarantine could create travel issues that make American cities more appealing.
It is estimated the league would limit team traveling parties to 50 members. For 12 teams, including players and staff, that means about 600 people would be coming to Pittsburgh. Add in the broadcast teams, journalists, league officials and others, and McMillan expects the total to be closer to 1,000.
That would be a miniscule attendance total for a regular-season Pens game let alone a post-season crowd. But make no mistake, hosting one of the major sports championships—even with no fans—is important to any city, as all have been hurt by the pandemic.
“We have received great support from the Allegheny Conference (on Community Development) and the business community. Our bid included the list of the local organizing committee, which was pretty much every big CEO in the city and they were so excited that it made us excited,” McMillan said.
“We didn’t have to sell it to anybody. The more we put it together, the more we were convinced this would be the perfect place, across the board.”
The NHL is expected to announce the two winning cities soon.