The 2020-21 NHL season will be like no other due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and, with or without fans in the stands, teams have a lot of challenges to face. To get a sense of how an organization is facing those challenges, I spoke to three executives with the New Jersey Devils, all of whom cover a different area of the industry: Donna Daniels, executive VP and GM of the Prudential Center, where the Devils play; Jillian Frechette, senior VP of marketing; and Kate Madigan, director of pro scouting operations.
Beginning with the rink itself, the Prudential Center is like many NHL arenas in that it typically hosts much more than hockey games. The pandemic has obviously crushed the concert schedule across the continent and for 2020-21, the Devils will not host fans to begin the season. But the organization has opened the Prudential Center and its practice rink for youth skating, with more than 8,000 kids getting a chance to skate since August. The Prudential Center also opened up for voters on Election Day and has hosted college basketball for Seton Hall.
"We actually started planning our return in mid-March," Daniels said. "Our core pillars of success are: Maximizing social distancing, minimizing contact, and then training and communication. We looked at people, process, protocols, products, PPE and technology."
Once fans are allowed into the building, it will be a different experience, but the silver lining is that the experience may actually be better than before. The extra planning has given Daniels and her crew an opportunity to think about the fan's path in a new way: how can wait times for concession stands be decreased? How much contactless payment can be used?
"I look at challenges as opportunities," Daniels said. "This is an opportunity to reimagine the way the Prudential Center operates and everyone who comes in will have a different experience."
And of course, there will be new protocols about hand sanitizers, masks and reminders about social distancing.
Marketing the New Jersey Devils has also been a challenge since the pandemic began and one of the most radically-altered events on the 2020 calendar was the NHL draft, which was held entirely online. The Devils had three first-rounders this year, nabbing Alex Holtz, Dawson Mercer and Shakir Mukhamadullin (all three of whom ended up playing at the recent world juniors). That made for a busy first night for Frechette and her team - and Day 2 was a marathon that lasted twice as long as a typical in-person draft day. The planning started in May and involved two teams - one focused on coverage of the team and players, and another doing a 'second-screen' experience.
"We are a team that celebrates hockey moments," Frechette said. "Whether it’s three first-round picks or a different combination, we really get excited about hockey moments and storytelling and are very committed to sharing that with our audience and encouraging engagement online."
As for the current team itself, Frechette and her squad have been busy getting the fan base excited about the rebuilding squad - which brought in more help over the summer in the form of players such as Ryan Murray, Corey Crawford and Andreas Johnsson. So far, that planning has paid off, as Frechette has seen a big spike in impressions across all social media platforms - 6.5 million the first two days of camp versus 2.7 million the year before. Even the raw feed of a scrimmage on a weekday morning got 30,000 views.
"It’s all about making our players very real and approachable," Frechette said. "Making folks understand what they’ve gone through and what they will go through."
As for scouting new players for the Devils, that has obviously been a more difficult task than usual for Madigan (who is about to take on an elevated role with the franchise) and the pro department.
"Everyone is pivoting and trying to see the best way to do things," she said. "This is unprecedented. We very much ask ourselves 'How can we do this?' knowing that no one has had this experience before."
One major challenge has been the rapidly-changing schedules in the hockey world, whether it be in Europe or the U.S. college ranks. And at the NHL level, pro scouts will be sticking to their own divisions this year and will really have to own them.
"We've used a lot of videos," Madigan said. "Obviously live viewing is better, but this year will be different and we are trying to keep our staff safe, as well."
The divisional schedule also presents a new set of parameters. For instance, the Devils will play the archrival New York Rangers four times in a row in April - something you'd never see in a typical regular season. So in that case, Madigan says the Devils will treat the stretch like a mini-playoff series.
One developmental advantage for New Jersey this season is that the Devils are bringing their AHL Binghamton affiliate to Newark, where the farm team will play at the Prudential Center. There will be no contact between the two teams, but from a scouting and development perspective, it will be a huge boon for New Jersey to have so many young players right there.
It's impossible to say how the 2020-21 NHL season is going to play out, but with a lot of planning behind the scenes, the Devils have prepared as best as they can. Now it's finally almost time to see if that work will pay off.