Hockey on Ice

How COVID-19 has put the sport on hold

By Susan Baldani

The sports industry, like many others, has been seriously impacted by the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19. From managers and players to fans and arena owners, the effect has been devastating, especially for a sport like hockey.

“It’s had a really dramatic effect on the business of hockey at every level, as it’s had with other sports,” says Costa Papista, sports manager and former semi-professional hockey player. “However, with some other sports, you can practice and train outdoors, but with hockey, not so much.

“You’re in an indoor arena, out on the ice, working really hard, and then you come off the ice after your 60 second shift and you’re sitting on the bench shoulder to shoulder with your teammates, breathing heavily and gasping for air. So, it seems logical that this airborne virus is bad luck for hockey.”

Hockey also doesn’t have the television revenue that some other sports do, he explains. It relies heavily on ticket sales and sponsorship and those two go hand-in-hand – if you’re not selling tickets and filling stadiums, the value to sponsors is greatly diminished.

At the minor professional level, says Papista, they’re looking at many different options. “Primarily, by having a shorter season and trying to hold off as long as possible to be able to get fans into the arenas and stadiums because that ticket revenue is so critical.”

A lot of the minor leagues have set start dates, then reset then, and then reset them again. Most semi-professional leagues and major junior leagues would have normally started in September, but they’ve been waiting to be able to at least be allowed a limited number of fans.

“No one wants to just cancel; they just want to wait until it’s safe and feasible,” says Papista. “But the way things have been going with case counts, it’s not really encouraging.

“It’s very difficult on so many levels because you got players that have a window of time where they have to be seen, recruited, and signed. So it’s tough on the players, tough on the families, and tough on the team owners. I also feel really bad for the arena owners and operators because they literally survive on ice rentals.”

Papista loves the sport, and has been playing since he was 4 years old. As a young man, he played on different local teams in his hometown of Grosse Pointe, and then in 1985, was drafted into the Ontario hockey league by the Sudbury Wolves. He’s also played for the London Knights, and for the University of New Brunswick in Canada while on a hockey scholarship. In addition, he’s competed internationally at the Hockey World Championships (1995) as a member of the Greek National Team.

“I like the speed of the game, and the physicality of the game as well,” he says. “I always loved being part of a team and I’ve been lucky to be a part of some close-knit teams. Some of those guys are my closest friends.”

Besides playing hockey, Papista always had an interest in the business side of sports as well. He has parlayed his experience and knowledge of the sport into management positions and has launched start-up franchises. He also currently plays on a local recreation team just for fun. So, he is seeing the sport struggle from many different angles.

Papista thinks the next six to 12 months are going to remain very challenging and difficult, but he does believe that hockey, and other sports, will rebound.

“If the vaccines from different companies are really effective, and once people get vaccinated and feel comfortable going out in public again, especially in large gatherings, I think all sports are going to recover,” he says.

“But I do think things are going to have to be done somewhat differently. It’s not going to be back to normal; it’s going to be back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.

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