Komets president Michael Franke was optimistic six weeks ago his team would be able to play its season-opening game Oct. 16. 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 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 for a full 72-game regular season.
“As quickly as things have changed here (with the 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, the ECHL won't be able to play. At Memorial Coliseum, only about 1,400 fans could 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 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 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 as major sports leagues are able to do.
“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,” Franke said, adding there's no liability protection from the federal government for bringing large groups of fans to sports events, and that numbers 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.”
The Komets haven't had to furlough any of their staff of approximately 15.
“We are eager to return to hockey, but at this time we believe this decision (to delay) 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 are also targeting December starts.
The Komets have 17 players under contract, most prominently Shawn Szydlowski, A.J. Jenks and Marco Roy, and it's possible players, signed or unsigned, will take harder looks at overseas leagues where seasons and paychecks would come sooner. Brady Shaw, who was Fort Wayne's MVP last season, signed last week 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 anticipate training camp opening around Nov. 20. The regular season could run to May.
“(The ECHL) wants to see a full schedule. The NHL and the AHL (are) 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 combat 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.”