The Wild might have surged into the playoffs after all.
On Friday, the NHL Players Association executive board approved a 24-team format for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Wild, seeded 10th in the Western Conference, would face seventh-seeded Vancouver in a five-game opening series.
Win the series, and the Wild would advance to the traditional 16-team bracket and something vaguely resembling the usual Stanley Cup playoffs would begin.
Now for the Covid disclaimers and accompanying questions:
The NHL hasn’t reached a final agreement with the players on the exact logistics of a return, or compensation, and we don’t know how many players are worried about playing during a pandemic.
A player could wind up quarantined in a hotel for weeks without their families, or could risk carrying the virus to their families.
The NHL doesn’t yet know where the games would be played, although Minnesota — with the Xcel Energy Center featuring six locker rooms and the Tria Rink walking distance away — would be one of the more logical sites.
International travel remains problematic. The U.S.-Canada border is not completely open yet. Will an NHL player be willing to fly on a commercial flight from Europe to the United States, given the difficulty of practicing social distancing on planes and at airports?
A Finn could fly back to the United States, test positive, undergo a quarantine and have his team eliminated from the playoffs before he gets a chance to play.
If a slew of key players test positive and are unable to participate, will fans view their absences as equivalent to injury games lost, or will their absences taint the playoffs?
What happens if the virus overruns an entire team?
Can hockey, a game of heavy sweating and hard hitting, control the spread of the virus?
Will the NHL develop face masks that pair with current helmets and eyeshields?
Are fans prepared to watch playoff hockey without fans in the stands or handshake lines on the ice?
The NHL is trying to thread a needle with nautical rope. And the rest of the major sports will do the same.
This is less a return to normalcy than a grand and perhaps dangerous experiment that will repeatedly prompt this question:
Do you love sport?
Sport is competition, and there is little doubt that major sports leagues are going to resume.
Sportstuff is all that accompanies and amplifies the competition.
Sportstuff is crowd noise and audible home-ice advantage.
It’s high-fives, dog piles, flying body bumps and silly handshakes.
It’s autograph-seeking, player meet-and-greets, fan selfies, tailgating and public pregaming, concession lines and the communal thrill of cheering a team in person with like-minded persons.
It’s sports reporting that takes you inside the locker room, teammates crowded together on a bench.
Imagine, if you will, a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 with pumped-in crowd noise, or none at all, and with one team decimated by a virus.
Will that be good enough for the usually discriminating American sports fan?
Will Wild players feel fortunate or cursed to have had their season extended into midsummer?
They would have finished just out of the playoffs if the season resumed with a traditional 16-game bracket.
Instead, a hot team with a rising star in forward Kevin Fiala may well be good enough to make a playoff run.
But that will be a possibility only if Fiala can and will fly back from Sweden to the United States, and veteran players with young children such as Devan Dubnyk and Eric Staal choose to play, and the entire league doesn’t have to shut down again because of an outbreak of coronavirus two weeks into the playoffs.
My advice to quarantined fans:
Take what you can get.
Appreciate that professional athletes, even if they are well-compensated, are risking their health for your amusement.
Pray that the leagues are reopening because they believe their players will be safe, not because owners are desperate to reduce financial losses.
And if the Wild wins the Stanley Cup this year, enjoy watching one of the greatest traditions in sports — the post-series elbow-bump line.