The easy part is done.
On Thursday night, the NHL Players’ Association began polling its executive board on a single issue: an expanded playoff set-up in which 24 teams would battle for the Stanley Cup, if and when the league determines it is safe to restart games. The NHLPA voted on the proposed Return to Play format, and on Friday night announced in a tweet that “the executive board of the NHLPA has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team Return to Play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup.”
Now is when the hard part begins: Figuring out what a comprehensive agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA looks like. Among the questions that have been raised but not settled: Where would the games take place? How often would players be tested for COVID-19? What happens if one or more players test positive during the playoff run? What steps will be taken to protect immunocompromised players? Is fighting permitted? Do teams shake hands after a playoff series? Etc.
Never mind some of the issues that would need to be resolved even before the first puck is dropped, such as whether players who are currently barred from entering the country where their team is based might be able to work out in another team’s facility: Could Auston Matthews and Frederick Andersen, who are riding out the quarantine at Matthews’s place in Scottsdale, Ariz., use the Arizona Coyotes’ nearby practice facility when that opens up?
If we’re going to see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season, dozens of problems will need to be solved.
But here are the broad outlines of what NHL hockey amid the COVID-19 pandemic might look like.
First step, repatriation
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told an industry conference this week that 17 per cent of NHL players reside outside either Canada or the United States. “Before we can start up, we’ve got to get them back to North America,” he said during an appearance at Leaders in Sports online forum, LeadersWeek.direct. After returning, they’ll need to undergo a 14-day quarantine period. And players have asked for a three-week training camp. People close to the league seem to think it could take until at least the middle of July before we could see hockey action. And that assumes the Canadian and U.S. governments either remove restrictions that currently bar most non-citizens of those countries from entry, or make exceptions for pro athletes.
Playoff spots for (almost) everyone!
The proposed playoff format breathes life into the dim hopes of teams such as Montreal – which had an estimated 1-per-cent chance of making the playoffs when the league paused the season on March 12 – and Chicago, with the top 12 teams from each of the Western and Eastern conferences in the mix. The top four teams from each conference would receive a bye into the first round of the playoffs, playing three games each in a round-robin preliminary tournament to determine their seeding. The bottom eight teams would play a separate preliminary tournament, a best-of-five elimination series (the No. 5 team vs. No. 12; No. 6 vs. No. 11, etc.). Eight teams from each conference would be left standing. The playoffs would then proceed in the usual format of four best-of-seven rounds.
Speaking at the same conference, Bettman said the league was still looking at eight or nine locations where games might be staged. Teams would be kept in nearby hotels that would likely play host only to NHL personnel, shuttled to and from the arena, where up to three games might be played each day, at least in the preliminary round. The league will likely whittle its list down to two cities, one in each of the United States and Canada, though it may not make the final decision for many weeks. Among the considerations, according to Bettman, are “how active Covid-19 might be in that particular place.”
Las Vegas, Edmonton, and Toronto are among the most frequently mentioned cities. The Western conference games would be staged in one city, the Eastern conference games in the other.
Vegas seems a shoo-in. It has vast blocks of empty hotels, a mayor who last month seemed to offer up her city as a control group in a life-and-death experiment, a desperately idled workforce (the Nevada tourism industry usually generates about US$75-billion in annual economic output), and a shiny new NHL-grade practice facility a short drive from downtown. And T-Mobile Arena, the home of the Vegas Golden Knights, is close enough to the Strip that the players quarantining in, say, the MGM Grand, could walk there in 10 minutes. (Or drive there in five.)
Edmonton is a promising hub, on paper. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney boasted to TSN’s Ryan Rishaug on Thursday of the province’s low rates of COVID-19 infection, saying “there is no safer place in North America to do this than Edmonton.” Rogers Place is a showpiece, with a spare practice rink and a pair of hotels nearby – though 12 teams might oversubscribe those hotels’ 650 rooms.
Toronto is an attractive centre, with plenty of hotels within walking distance of Scotiabank Arena (though keeping players from the public might necessitate driving) and a practice facility boasting four ice pads. The city, which has had the dubious distinction of adding more than 100 COVID-19 cases each day for months now, may not have done as much lobbying, but maybe it doesn’t need to: It’s Toronto. And with the Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought hitting 53 years this month, maybe the league would throw the city a bone by allowing it to hold more than its usual handful of playoff games.
The Stanley Cup final would be staged in one of the two hub cities, with the league hoping no quarantine period would be required for the team flying in from the other city.
Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3
The NHL is looking at the testing protocols of various leagues, including the reanimated Bundesliga, which tests players the day before a game and has the results in time for match day, and Major League Baseball, which proposed a regimen that includes multiple fluid swab tests each week and temperature checks twice a day.
Wither the enforcers?
While most pro leagues have drawn up strict guidelines for physical distancing of players – Bundesliga substitutes even wear masks – the NHL may look out of step, with its crowded benches and nose-to-nose faceoffs. But fighting, which carries the risk of bodily fluid exchange, is expected to be discouraged.
Wither the fans?
Some have suggested that one reason the league has been moving slowly is that it hopes local authorities might loosen restrictions and allow some fans back in stands. It seems unlikely, and would spur questions about the fairness of, say, Vegas or Toronto playing in front of home fans. But we’re already in the upside-down, so who knows?
A bench full of black aces
There is widespread acknowledgement that, despite best efforts, a player or team staff member will contract COVID-19. Those who test positive will need to be isolated until they recover (fingers crossed that they can ride it out easily). But players will also need to be replaced by so-called black aces, call-ups from a team’s AHL affiliate to assist a playoff run. Usually, a team might have one or two, but with a schedule of up to 28 games (plus the preliminary round) over a span of two months, it’s conceivable that several players on a single team could fall ill for a significant stretch of the playoffs. Do teams expand their roster by a dozen AHL players, just to be sure they have enough bodies on hand? (Alternatively, is David Ayres available to hang out in the bowels of an NHL arena for July and August? And also, can he play defence and right wing?)
Do broadcasters have room in their schedules?
(Sorry, that’s supposed to be a joke.)
The league is talking about staging up to three games a day in each of two hubs, for a total of six every day, at least during the preliminary round. Once the 16 playoff teams have been determined, the schedule would likely slow to only four games a day during the conference quarter-finals, then two games a day in the next round, and one game a day for the conference finals. The Stanley Cup final would probably unfold at a faster clip than usual, with one game every two days: No travel days would be necessary, because nobody’s going anywhere.
The NHL’s Canadian broadcast partner, Rogers, has acres of time to spare on its Sportsnet channels, and would be thrilled to air three games a day. And CBC would also likely be a very receptive national broadcast partner, especially considering the massive hole ripped in its schedule when the 2020 Summer Olympics, for which it has the rights, was postponed from July 24 to Aug. 9 until the summer of 2021.
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