An NHL season like no other resumes on Monday, when the Maple Leafs and 23 other teams return to practice for the first time in four months after a pause because of the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Toronto is ready to welcome 34 players for split training sessions at the Ford Performance Centre as the league enters the third phase of its return-to-play protocol. Playoffs are expected to begin with a qualifying round on Aug. 1, but the situation remains fraught with uncertainty.
Toronto FC’s first game at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida was cancelled Sunday after a player from D.C. United tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, the result for a Toronto player was inconclusive. Thirty-five NHL players have tested positive since June 8, when they were allowed to skate in small groups with physical distancing.
A half-dozen NHL players have opted not to return because of related medical concerns, the most prominent of which is Calgary defenceman Travis Hamonic. Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said he does not expect any Maple Leaf players invited to the abbreviated training camp to opt out.
Once the season starts anew, three games a day will be played in Edmonton and Toronto, with 12 teams from the Eastern Conference all competing at Scotiabank Arena and the remainder from the Western Conference at Rogers Place. The arena in downtown Edmonton has been chosen to hold both the Eastern and Western Conference finals and the Stanley Cup final.
Dubas said he always held out hope that the NHL could commence with games, but he acknowledged that it has looked dicey as the contagious respiratory illness has spread, especially in the United States. The league had hoped to have one hub city in each country, but decided, at least partially, to place both in Canada because there have been fewer cases of the virus.
“What has happened is so unprecedented that I don’t even have words that could describe the way things have evolved,” Dubas said Sunday during a 40-minute video call with journalists. “I was hopeful we would be able to return to play but, at the same time, it was different than anything we have ever been confronted with that we really didn’t know how it would go.”
The NHL season was suspended on March 12, one day after Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. The Maple Leafs last played on March 10, a 2-1 victory on home ice over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Toronto was close to locking down a playoff berth with a dozen regular-season games to go when play was halted.
The league expanded the playoffs to 24 teams from 16 because many divisional races were tight, which dropped the Maple Leafs into the best-of-five qualifying round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The top four teams in each conference will engage in a three-game round-robin to determine the seedings in the first round, while the remaining 16 compete in a play-in round.
Teams are expected to arrive in the hub cities by July 26 and will play one exhibition game each. Toronto was chosen as a host city after making a bold bid that calls for creating a 16-hectare campus, where players and staff of five teams will stay at Exhibition Place on Toronto’s waterfront. The design provides access to a host of facilities, including the Coca-Cola Coliseum, which is home to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the Raptors’ practice facility and the fairly new Hotel X, which has more than 400 rooms. The historic Fairmont Royal York, which has more than 1,300 rooms in downtown Toronto near Scotiabank Arena, will be the home of seven teams.
Edmonton’s splashy proposal included creating an Olympic-style village in the downtown core around Rogers Place. Six teams will stay in the JW Marriott hotel, which is attached to the arena by a pedway. Basketball courts, golf simulators, movie nights, table tennis and pool tables, and video games were among the promised amenities. The other six teams will stay at the Sutton Place Hotel, which is also downtown within the to-be closed-off neighbourhood.
Players will be separated by hotel floors in each city and will have to undergo testing for COVID-19 each day. The league and the NHL Players’ Association agreed to a lengthy list of safety measures, which includes players being made to stay within the secure zone, stay in single-occupancy hotels, wear gloves and masks when not on the ice, and not speak in elevators and touch the buttons with their elbow.
Dubas said he believes that having games played at the Leafs’ home arena may provide only a marginal advantage without fans and circumstances that are so different.
“It is so hard to predict what is going to happen,” Dubas said. “Nobody has any experience at this. It’s an August resumption after a five-month layoff. We know the rink, but are going to be abiding to strict protocols the league has enacted to make certain it is fair for everybody.
“The NHL has done a great job of adapting and recognizing playoff races weren’t over. I think things are set up very fairly.”
The league and players’ association announced Friday night that it had reached a collective agreement that will make way for labour peace for six years. Provisions include NHL players returning to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026. The announcement was made in conjunction with the finalized plans for a return to play.
“We’re going to do the very best we can,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Saturday. “We understand there are risks attendant to it, but as I said before, and all of us mean it, health and safety is the No. 1 priority for our players, for our organizations and for our fans and the communities that we play in.”
Donald Fehr, counsel to the players, agreed.
“This is probably not something that a lot of people are going to call a perfect agreement,” Fehr said. “A lot of people are going to find faults with one thing or another. That’s always the case. And I’m pretty sure there’s going to be unanticipated events and perhaps even unintended consequences.
“But I do think this agreement meets the challenge, and the next challenge is going to be to implement it both in the short-term and in the long-term, and there’s a lot in this agreement, I think, players can be proud of.”
The Maple Leafs will welcome 18 forwards, 12 defencemen and four goaltenders to Monday’s practice in the suburbs. The list includes Jake Muzzin and Ilya Mikehev, who were both missing from the lineup when the season was suspended in March.
Muzzin, a veteran defenceman, suffered a broken hand as he blocked a shot against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 25. It was only one day after he had signed a four-year, US$22.5-million contract extension. Mikheyev, a rookie from Russia, was off to a promising start before an artery and tendons were severed in his right wrist on Dec. 27 during a game against New Jersey.
Besides Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell, Toronto has invited goalies Joseph Woll and Kasimir Kaskisuo from the Marlies to their camp.
“As with every other team, we are largely past some of the injuries that plagued us at the end of the season,” Dubas said. “We are excited about that.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to learn about our entire group. ... The thing I think about is that we had some bad moments this season, but responded quite well. We showed the ability to have better resiliency than in the past.”
This is the fourth successive year that the Maple Leafs have reached the playoffs. They were eliminated by Washington and Boston in each of the past three first rounds.
It’s up to them, and to the vagaries of COVID-19, to see if they get a chance to redeem themselves.
“It’s such a different situation,” Dubas said. “It’s an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, if we are willing and able to embrace the differences in the way we have to do things. It’s a growth opportunity.”