Playoff hockey at the North Charleston Coliseum in July?
It could happen in 2021.
The South Carolina Stingrays could be playing deep into next summer if the ECHL is forced to postpone the start of the 2020 season.
League commissioner Ryan Crelin said he's optimistic there will be hockey in 2020, but what the upcoming minor-league season will look like in the middle of a global pandemic remains to be determined.
The ECHL’s Board of Governors held their annual summer meetings via social media last week to lay the groundwork for what they hope will be a 72-game season. But when the 2020-21 season will start, whether or not there will be a full regular-season schedule, and how many fans will be allowed into buildings across the league are still being finalized.
“The general consensus around the league, among the owners, among the players and the fans is that everyone wants to play and I think there will be hockey,” Crelin said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the final say-so on if we’ll be able to play. That’s up to the local municipalities and governments and the health guidelines they are following. Right now, we can’t open our doors, so we’re setting up protocols and procedures that we feel will give us the best chance for success.”
South Carolina Stingrays president Rob Concannon echoed Crelin’s sentiments, and said the season could be delayed by as much as two months due to the coronavirus.
“I’m optimistic we will have a season, I just don’t know when it will start,” Concannon said. “There were a lot of positive talks at last week’s meetings. The ECHL has a COVID-19 committee that meets every week and we have another important call on July 15.
"We’re confident, optimistic and hopeful that we will be playing, we just don’t know exactly what the time frame will be.”
With the NHL set to open training camps on July 10 and resume its season in August, the calendar for the ECHL and the American Hockey League could be pushed back months. The start of a new NHL season could be as late as January 2021. Traditionally the calendars for the NHL, AHL and ECHL are all aligned.
“What the NHL and AHL do will impact us and be a part of the decision, but it’s not the only part of the decision,” Crelin said. “I think all options remain on the table. Where we land has yet to be determined, but it’ll be a factor that we are considering.”
Delaying the start of the ECHL season, which normally opens in mid-October, has it’s pros and cons, Concannon said. Opening the season in December means escaping the long shadow of college football and the NFL.
“It could create some scheduling conflicts if we’re playing hockey in June and July, but it also means we’d get away from college football,” Concannon said. “I think every ‘what if’ is on the table. I think, me personally, I don’t have a problem if the season starts in December. For us, the most important thing is having a full 72-game schedule.'”
The ECHL hasn't made any changes to its offseason calendar yet, but the idea of starting a season in October seems unlikely.
“With every passing day, it’s going to be tougher and tougher to start on time,” said Stingrays owner Todd Halloran. “I don’t think starting later would necessarily be a bad idea. There are trade-offs both ways. The longer you go into the spring and summer, the more alternatives there are for entertainment. I don’t think it hurts us a lot if the season opens a month or two months later, after that I think it gets tricky.”
The ECHL is spread across 20 states and two provinces in Canada, so finding a consensus on the virus and the protocols to combat it won’t be easy.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Halloran said. “I think the commissioner is doing a terrific job under very difficult circumstances. There is a lot good analysis and data gathering from the league and the league is trying to map out a scenario so that we can play. Right now I think what the league is going to start do is maybe eliminating alternatives.”
While specific pandemic protocols between the league and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association – the organization that represents ECHL players – are yet to be decided, Crelin said the league anticipates that there will be players and coaches that will test positive for COVID-19 during the season.
“We’re watching the protocols that the NHL, NBA and NFL are putting in place,” Crelin said. “Someone is going to test positive and we have to be prepared for that. The general consensus is that if one player or coach gets the virus, it’s won’t be grounds for shutting everything down. There will be immediate steps that will have to be taken so everyone remains safe and the masses are not affected, but one positive test won’t stop play.”
Meanwhile, Stingrays head coach Steve Bergin has already gotten a head start on next year’s roster, signing a couple of players. But he admits his sales pitch has been a little different with the virus affecting every decision that’s being made this summer.
“We’re trying to go about it like it’s business as usual, as a typical summer, but obviously there are so many different elements involved,” Bergin said. “There are some guys that are eager to sign that might have waited normally until later in the summer, while there are other guys that might have signed already that are a little reluctant. It’s just a very strange situation.”
One player that won’t be on the ice for the Stingrays next season is goalie Parker Milner, who announced his retirement last week. Milner, 29, played four seasons for the Stingrays. He was the ECHL’s Goalie of the Year in 2018.
“It’s a huge void to fill when you lose a guy of Parker’s caliber,” Bergin said. “More importantly Parker is a pro and he’s been around so long it was like you didn’t even have to worry about him. You knew he was going to be ready to go and be a good pro and be a good example for the guys in the locker room.
"It’ll be different not having him around. He’s been in a South Carolina Stingrays jersey since the first day I was here.”