Six weeks ago, Komets president Michael Franke was optimistic his team would be able to play its season-opening game Oct. 16 as had been scheduled. But then COVID-19 cases began spiking around North America and it became clear it would be neither safe nor financially prudent to play so soon.
Franke and the rest of the ECHL’s Board of Governors decided Tuesday that the season needed to be pushed back. After an agreement from the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, the ECHL announced Wednesday it was targeting a Dec. 4 start to the regular season.
“I mean, as quickly as things have changed here (with the novel coronavirus pandemic) in the last four or five weeks, obviously it would be nice to see them change back the other way,” Franke said. “But we could not start in October and it was important to get the word out now.”
There are myriad factors that would determine the ECHL’s ability to play in December, including the health and safety of players, staff and fans, but perhaps the biggest would be the guidelines regarding social distancing. Put simply, if fans at arenas must remain 6 feet apart, which could be the case barring a vaccine for COVID-19, the ECHL won’t be able to play.
Using Memorial Coliseum as the example, only about 1,400 fans would be allowed into a building that seats about 10,500. The Komets’ base of season-ticket holders is about 3,300 and their average announced attendance per game last season was an ECHL-best 8,090.
While the capacities of ECHL buildings under social-distancing guidelines vary from city to city -- some newer buildings with more leg room could allow a higher percentage of their fan bases in -- it wouldn’t be economically viable for teams to play under such restrictions, especially since the ECHL cannot supplement income with TV contracts, or play at one site, as some major sport leagues are doing in their current spectator-less seasons.
“At 6 feet right now, it’s just not feasible for anyone to put people in facilities.… There’s no way financially that teams can operate at a just-below-break-even line, based on not having many fans. Right now, under social distancing, we’re around (1,400) fans at a Komet game. Well, that doesn’t work, just like it doesn’t work anywhere else,” Franke said, adding there’s no liability protection from the federal government for bringing large groups of fans to sport events, and that outbreaks of COVID-19 cases in other sports leagues, namely MLB, have been scary.
“Those are all the things that that need to improve over the course of the next several months and we're confident that they will.”
Last season was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic; the Komets had 10 games remaining in the regular season when play was halted March 12 and were poised to make the playoffs.
The Komets, who qualified in the spring for the Paycheck Protection Program, have been fortunate in that they haven't had to furlough any of their staff of approximately 15.
“Up to this point, no staff member has been furloughed and I think we're probably, as far as I know, one of the only teams in minor league sports that has not furloughed anyone up to this point,” Franke said, adding that training camp now is expected to open around Nov. 21.
The ECHL is still hoping to play a full 72-game slate and the Komets have submitted available dates through May for scheduling purposes. Not all 26 ECHL teams are on as solid financial footing as Fort Wayne, and the two Canada-based teams, the Newfoundland Growlers and Brampton Beast, face particularly complicated obstacles because of border restrictions.
“We are eager to return to hockey, but at this time we believe this decision is prudent for the safety of our players, employees and fans,” ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin said in a news release. “The ECHL and our Board of Governors are focused on the 2020-21 Season and remain optimistic for the safe reopening of our venues across the continent. We appreciate our partners’ and fans’ continued support and patience, as we work together with our venues, local health officials and the members of the PHPA's Executive Committee towards the safe return of ECHL hockey.”
The higher-level American Hockey League and lower-level Southern Professional Hockey League announced last week they were targeting December starts. By aligning with the AHL schedule, the ECHL may have solved one hindrance to the coming season -- determining how to play without players contracted to NHL or AHL teams.
The Coliseum’s other major winter sports tenant, the Mad Ants basketball team, has already seen its G League season pushed back a month to December. It's unclear when, or whether, Purdue Fort Wayne basketball will play this season.
With the ECHL season postponed, more players could look at playing in comparable overseas leagues where seasons and paychecks would come sooner, though travel bans would make it difficult for U.S.-born players to do so. Last week, Brady Shaw, who was Fort Wayne’s MVP last season, signed to play in Denmark and said: "I feel like the guaranteed season and the guaranteed paycheck played a big factor in my decision.”
The Komets have 17 players under contract for this season -- most prominently Shawn Szydlowski, Marco Roy, A.J. Jenks, Anthony Petruzzelli, Blake Siebenaler and Kyle Haas -- and Franke acknowledged that some ECHL players may not have the patience or ability to wait until December for paychecks.
“(The ECHL) wants to see a full schedule. The NHL and the AHL is in the same boat. But at the end of the day, that’s going to be determined by what occurs here over this critical time for sports in our country, the next six to eight weeks. That’s going to be the determining factor of what plays, what doesn’t play, what plays in front of fans, what doesn’t play in front of fans,” Franke said, hoping that there are advancements in vaccines and “drug cocktails” to minimize the risks associated with COVID-19.
“Something to minimize the symptoms, those are big things that everybody’s going to be looking at, not only in the sports world but in all businesses that are having their people work from home right now. I’m sure everybody would like to get back to the workplace.”