TORONTO — On Bremner Boulevard just west of Scotiabank Arena, a few TV news crews gathered outside the temporary fence surrounding the building, hoping to see N.H.L. teams leaving or entering the perimeter.
In the past, barricades bounded the wide cul-de-sac, barely pinning in the crowded street party that drew thousands of fans each night of Toronto Raptors run to the 2019 N.B.A. championship. But in the hours before the start of the 2020 N.H.L. playoffs on Saturday afternoon, the area featured security, police, and a solitary hot dog vendor waiting next to his cart.
In an indoor retail space across the street, a Sport Chek apparel store with plenty of Toronto Maple Leafs gear on display was open, but empty of shoppers. Further down the concourse, a liquor store had customers lined up out the door, spaced six feet apart.
Toronto is one of two sites hosting the N.H.L.’s postseason, a restart that came after a 140-day pause in play because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the league’s culminating tournament didn’t compel many locals to rearrange their priorities during the Simcoe Day holiday weekend. But the league has made a symbolic footprint, if not an economically significant one: from blocks of rooms at two downtown hotels housing teams, to the signage on busy sidewalks near the arena reminding pedestrians the N.H.L. had arrived.
Norm O’Reilly, director of the International Institute for Sports Business and Leadership at the University of Guelph, said Canadians recognized the significance of holding the games in the country’s largest city, “even though there’s very little economic impact because nobody’s traveling to watch the games.” He added, “For the hard-core hockey fan, it’s a no-brainer.”
Inside the empty arena, stakes remained high for the league which looks to salvage a season upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and for players, who, after all, were still competing for the Stanley Cup. But arena light shows and piped-in crowd noise couldn’t make playoff hockey without spectators feel normal.
“There’s no crowd, obviously,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said Saturday after his team’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. “That intensity that you feed off of playing in the playoffs, it’s not there.”
Before restarting play, the N.H.L. published a 28-page manual outlining how it would operate a playoff schedule while limiting player and staff exposure to the public during the pandemic. Players and staff undergo daily Covid-19 screenings, and stay at their hotels when not playing or training, or at any of the N.H.L.-designated recreational areas, which include movie theaters, patios and lounges.
The setup helps ensure that all teams feel like visitors, including the hometown Maple Leafs, who like every other team in the hub are staying in a downtown hotel. “There will be some familiarity for us” being in the home arena, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said Sunday before Toronto’s series-opening loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Things are going to be different, even when we do get to use our own facilities.”
But in a league where gate revenue still matters, teams also need to adjust to a postseason without live spectators.
The Maple Leafs, for example, ranked fourth in the N.H.L. in home attendance this season, averaging 19,301 fans per home game. Revenue lost from those fans’ ticket purchases, parking, seat licensing and concessions adds up. The absence of fans heightens the importance of TV ratings, even as the N.H.L. competes for North American viewers against other leagues, like Major League Baseball and the N.B.A., that have resumed competition this summer.
According to Sports Media Watch, the series opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens averaged 1.54 million viewers on NBC, a markedly smaller audience than the N.B.A. and M.L.B. restarts drew earlier in July.
Four years ago, all seven Canadian N.H.L. teams missed the playoffs and TV ratings cratered. That year, the first week of playoff broadcasts averaged a reported 513,000 viewers in Canada, down 61 percent from the previous season.
Canadian viewership numbers won’t be made available until Tuesday, but last week, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that 4.3 million people total tuned in across the company’s various networks during an N.H.L. exhibition doubleheader July 28.
But even in hockey-mad Canada, where in 2013, Rogers agreed to pay $5.2 billion for 12 years of N.H.L. TV rights, big audiences and deep fan engagement isn’t guaranteed for this postseason. The only two Canadian teams at the Toronto playoff hub are the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs and the 12th-seeded Canadiens. An early exit for either team would eliminate two of Rogers Sportsnet’s biggest TV attractions.
O’Reilly said that outside of Canada the summer restart was an opportunity for the N.H.L. to grow its audience beyond endemic fans, but the league won’t know if they’ve succeed until later in the postseason.
“Can they get that share of the market that’s just a general sports fan?” O’Reilly said. “If the N.H.L. can get them interested in hockey, that’s a win.”