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Many questions remain about risk and health as NHL talks return to play

Many questions remain about risk and health as NHL talks return to play

While the NHL made big news last week with the unveiling of its plan to return to play with a 24-team tournament expected to get going this summer — barring any unforeseen COVID-19 setbacks — there is still plenty to be hashed out.

The NHLPA and NHL will need to come to agreement on other aspects of the league’s return-to-play plan and teams will need to begin skating, practicing and preparing to play in the postseason tournament that’s still months away.

The NHL is expected to make a formal announcement that the 31 NHL teams can begin Phase 2 with small practice groups at NHL facilities sometime over the next few weeks, and the word is that NHL training camp won’t begin prior to a July 10 start date. This means we could be seeing Stanley Cup playoff hockey in August and September before a Stanley Cup is awarded to the winner of the 2019-20 NHL season sometime in the fall.

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The real question, though, is how safe it’s going to be for players, referees, team and league personnel and anybody else essential that’s involved to help make these NHL games happen in designated hub cities once they are up and running.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara acknowledged there is still plenty left to go when it comes to the issues of health and well-being while talking about a return to play with Bruins reporters last week.

“These are the questions that still need to be processed. After the approval of the format there are other steps that need to be gone over,” said Chara. “I’m sure this is one of those things that everybody needs to be aware of that the safety and health of players, staff, coaches and everybody working around [the games] needs to be taken care of. Those are the questions that will need to be asked and answered.”

Some NHL players like Leafs winger Mitch Marner already expressed concern about any NHL personnel with underlying health conditions like Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi, who has Type 1 Diabetes. Clearly there are also some older NHL coaches like Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville and John Tortorella who could be more at risk if a COVID-19 outbreak were to happen during these playoffs, and that doesn’t even take into account older NHL assistant coaches as well.

“I’m all down for starting everything up [with the NHL season again]. Let’s rock. [But] what if someone gets sick and dies? It's awful to think about, but still," said Marner of Domi, his former London Knights teammate, a few weeks ago during a video chat with fans. "There's dudes like [Max] Domi who has diabetes. If he gets it, he's in [a predicament]."

TSN 690 radio host Tony Marinaro admitted on an NBC Sports Boston Zoom call with James Murphy and yours truly last week that it’s a “scary” scenario for the Canadiens given their situation with players and coaches. It wouldn’t shock anyone if there may even be some hesitant players who opt not to return to play this summer depending on their individual health situations and concern level.

“I just got off the phone [on-air] about an hour ago with Dr. Leighanne Parkes, who is an infectious disease specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and I asked her about Max Domi. I asked her about Max Domi because as we know with this COVID-19 that it’s mostly the elderly that are losing their lives. But if there is somebody losing their life before the age of 80, then it’s someone with an underlying health condition. Max Domi is a Type-1 diabetic and that is scary and extremely dangerous.

“I asked her about the [21-page] document put out by the NHL for their health protocols [during the return to play] and she said it was a well thought out document. She said the NHL has covered most of the bases, if not all of them, and it was really well thought out. But at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to individual choice, Max Domi’s individual choice. But it really is scary and it really is dangerous for a player with a pre-existing condition.

Even though the protocol is there and the document is there and they take all the safety measures, do you want to take the risk? Would I? No. Would you? Probably not. But if there is one thing our experience has shown us, we’re not wired like these [NHL players]. These guys want to play. I can’t speak for Max Domi, but if I were a betting man I’d bet that he would play.

Domi himself admitted it was on his mind while talking it over on a conference call with reporters a few weeks ago amidst the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent NHL work stoppage.

"Being a Type 1 diabetic, it's something that raises some concern. But you really don't know how everyone's going to be affected by this disease. Being a Type 1 doesn't change much. I would handle myself the same way as if I didn't have [diabetes]," said the 25-year-old Domi, who is third on the Canadiens with 17 goals and 44 points in 71 games this season. "Everyone is affected by this in their own way. A lot of people have been struggling.

“A lot of people have suffered loss. It's been a really tough time for everyone, and you have to be sensitive to that. You have to understand that this is very real. People have gotten sick from this. People have died from this. All you can really do is do your part, stay at home, stay safe and be respectful of any rules that were put in place.”

The good news is that most teams, and subsequently most players, will be eliminated from playoff contention within the first few weeks of a Stanley Cup playoff return-to-play. The attrition of playoff rounds will quickly lessen the amount of people, both quarantined and coming into contact with each other, present at the hub cities.

A few shortened playoff series at the start of the NHL tournament could make that an even more expeditious process that’s as safe as it can possibly for everybody involved. But at the end of the day it will be about some level of risk for each and every NHL player involved.

It all boils down to a very personal decision — and it shouldn't be all that surprising if not every player signs up to assume that COVID-19 risk once play does resume.

Bruins' David Pastrnak, Ondrej Kase might not practice until Thursday

Bruins' David Pastrnak, Ondrej Kase might not practice until Thursday

BRIGHTON, Mass. — Another day passed without David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase on the ice at Bruins Return to Play camp, and now it looks like they may not skate with the full group until Thursday at the earliest.

Both players are in the midst of going through quarantine and COVID-19 testing before being cleared by the B’s medical advisors and staff to practice with the rest of the group, and it’s ending up taking more than the one or two days the B’s expected in the first place.

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Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy couldn’t say for sure if Pastrnak and Kase would be on the ice with the smaller group on Wednesday, or if they might skate on their own at Warrior Ice Arena at some point during the day. The expectation is, however, that Pastrnak and Kase will be part of a full practice group on Thursday that should also include Trent Frederic, who skated on his own with Bruins skating coach Kim Brandvold at Warrior on Tuesday morning.

The expectation is that missing the first three days won’t be too detrimental for Pastrnak and Kase provided they are taking part by the end of the week.

“Let’s just assume they get back into the mix Thursday with the group. I don’t think they will be too far behind. I think some European players were in countries where they were free to skate earlier, so they might have had the benefit of skating while guys couldn’t here,” said Cassidy of Pastrnak, who was skating with Czech pros as of a few weeks ago before heading back to Boston. “But the rules were that when you come back you had to quarantine for ‘X’ amount of time, so I don’t hold it against them. Those were the rules in place and they were kind of fluid as we went along.

“Now if they came back the day before [camp started] and were told they needed to sit for 14 days, then that probably wouldn’t have been the wisest move. If they’re in with the group on Thursday and they look good, healthy and fit and [good] conditioning, then I think they’ll catch up in a hurry and we’ll be fine.”

Urho Vaakanainen, Anton Blidh and Daniel Vladar all joined the B’s camp group on Tuesday for the first time and Anders Bjork was bumped up to right wing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand after really popping in Day One of camp.

Here are the line combos and D-pairings for Day 2 of Return to Play camp with the Bruins going for more than an hour after a quick 45-minute practice on the first day:

NHL players need to follow Patrice Bergeron's advice: 'Be smart and use common sense'

NHL players need to follow Patrice Bergeron's advice: 'Be smart and use common sense'

BRIGHTON, Mass. — Now that the Bruins are back practicing together as a group after the first day of Phase 3 training camp, the biggest challenge still waits patiently in front of them.

Quite frankly, it sits in front of the entire NHL as the league attempts to get 24 teams through a two-week training camp, a week of practices in a hub city and then several months of playoff games without enduring any back-breaking COVID-19 outbreaks along the way.

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It’s certainly not going to be easy, as we saw on Monday as more than a handful of Penguins players were kept off the ice in Pittsburgh due to secondary exposure with somebody who ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

We’ve also seen in Major League Baseball where the demand for testing has already overwhelmed the private labs that MLB hired out to provide them with an essential element of returning to play.

Over the weekend Don Sweeney said that he fully expects the Bruins to be forced into navigating through positive cases in the future, even if the internal belief among the Black and Gold is that the one and only COVID-19 positive Bruins player to this point was a false positive result rather than the real thing.

“Individual positive tests are going to happen and we have to act accordingly,” said Sweeney. “It’s going to be a real test for our group, but I think our group is really strong in that regard. We can lean on resources and tap into people that they do during the year, and really go through these things as a group. Team structure is going to be really important.”

If any pro sports league in North America has a shot at getting through it over the next six months it’s got to be the NHL, which has a thorough set of safety protocols, a group of 700-plus players who are fully on board after voting by an 80-20 margin to return to play, and a plan to take the game up to Toronto and Edmonton, where the COVID-19 outbreaks have been contained. All of these add up to the essential things that are needed for a successful return to play.  

Still, it’s going to take a full buy-in from NHL players and personnel to persevere all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in October. The NHL released numbers on Monday that 30 out of 600 players had tested positive in Phase 2 (5 percent) and 43 of the roughly 720 players worldwide tested positive over the last few months.

It's fairly encouraging considering there were no restrictions on off-ice activity for players during Phase 2 and that there was zero growth in positive cases when the NHL upped the allowed player participation numbers from six to 12 players a couple of weeks ago. But it still means there is going to need to be buy-in across the NHL where each team will only be as strong as their weakest links in terms of players.

The bottom line: The NHL's Return to Play means getting all players on-board in terms of behavior and being both safe and smart away from the rink no matter what their personality, maturity level or beliefs about the very real dangers posed by COVID-19.

It seems like just a few years ago that the Bruins reportedly needed a security guard outside Tyler Seguin’s hotel room during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs to make sure the youngster wasn’t sneaking out at night. That kind of thing absolutely can’t happen over the next few months and the players all seem to understand the gravity of the situation.   

The Bruins, in particular, are uniquely poised as example-setters given their strong veteran leadership group headed by Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, so it’s no surprise the message sent to the rest of the team was a strong, resonant one.

“Professionalism is going to be huge. We need to rely on everyone for this thing to happen and for this to work. We're not going to babysit [guys] on their whereabouts and whatnot, so it's about trusting one another to do the right thing and being committed to this thing to work and to go forward,” said Bergeron. “I think that’s the most important thing is to be professionals about it. Be smart and use common sense.”

Honestly, every NHL team would probably feel a lot better about their chances of keeping things together from start to finish this hockey postseason if they had somebody like No. 37 doling out the wisdom inside the dressing room. It will be particularly difficult once the Bruins settle into the Toronto hub city without their families for most of August and September. The challenge there will be to steer clear of any risky behavior once boredom sets in, when a few positive cases could end up shutting the entire operation down.

Using good judgment was part of the message passed down from Bruce Cassidy to the players on Monday prior to getting on the ice. The Bruins coaches practiced what they preached by donning masks for the entirety of practice and the B’s players did the same by wearing masks inside the dressing room before getting out on the ice.

Let’s hope every other NHL team does the same thing across the league.

“I addressed the guys. My message is that I’m not looking at this as training camp. I’m looking at this as ‘Return to Play camp’ or ‘Return to Play’ practices. To me training camp is a different mentality where it’s the beginning of a long marathon,” said Bruce Cassidy. “This isn’t that case. This is the beginning of a quick return comparable to a sprint and that’s the way we want to look at it. The timing and execution of our practices needs to get up there as quickly as possible. That needs to be our focus every day.

"We have a group of hard-working guys. The conditioning part is something you normally monitor during camp and make sure guys are where they need to be. We need to find our game in a hurry. That was my message. Our health coordinator, our medical staff and Donnie [Sweeney] talked to our guys a bit in terms of the procedure. I think they’re getting used to it a bit. They’ve seen it now recently.

And the last message was about being responsible away from the rink. It’s not just you that you could [impact]. In essence, you could affect up to 40 or 50 guys, so let’s do our best to social distance and wear our masks when we need to be out. Try to limit contact. That was it and let’s get back to work.

Those are the kinds of messages that should have been passed around in each of the 24 dressing rooms on Monday morning ahead of “Return to Play” camp.

The Bruins had a feel-good moment on Monday while finally getting back out on the ice together for the first time in four months. They hope to experience a few more of those along the way, obviously. The really good news is that the Bruins sound like they are ready to do everything humanly possible to see this NHL season through to the very end as safely as possible.

Doing that will be almost as satisfying as winning the Cup. Right, Bruins fans?