The NHL is getting close, everybody.
The league is finalizing plans for Phases 3 and 4 of the Return to Play protocol, and then it will need a few days to be approved by a vote from the entire NHLPA membership, but the NHL and NHLPA have got everything in place to give the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs a shot this summer.
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NHL training camps have now been pushed ahead to a planned July 13 opening date with qualifying round games set to begin on Aug. 1, and a Stanley Cup winner planned for early October in the hub city of Edmonton. Games will be played in two hub cities, Edmonton and Toronto, in the first couple of rounds before the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be shipped out west to the hockey hotbed of Alberta.
UPDATE (Monday, July 6 at 6:30 p.m. ET): The NHL and NHLPA announced Monday a tentative agreement on a number of key issues, including a few notable dates involving the 2019-20 season.
--End of Update--
The level of safety guidelines and protocols is thoroughly amazing, all the way down to daily testing for hotel workers and bus drivers for the players, and there will be strict rules designed to keep the bubbles secure while ultimately protecting all of those involved with putting the games back on.
Meanwhile, the NHL released information on current COVID-19 positive rates with 23 players out of 369 testing positive since opting into the voluntary Phase 2 practices.
There have been 35 total players who have tested positive for COVID-19 out of roughly 600 NHL players across the world, which means NHL players are testing positive at a rate of roughly 5.8 percent with zero containment rules put into place outside of the rink. This is actually encouraging news considering that the NHL upped the number of players allowed together on the ice from six to 12 over the last couple of weeks, and there has been no demonstrable spike or spread aside from a handful of St. Louis Blues players and personnel who tested positive last week.
But the Return to Play plan certainly has some interesting features including:
• Families will not be allowed to be with NHL players until the conference finals and/or Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton, so NHL players could be away from their families for as long as five weeks during the qualifying rounds and first two rounds of the playoffs.
• Players with underlying health issues will be examined by doctors and could be restricted from playing if it’s deemed unsafe for them. This will be interesting for NHL players with Type 1 diabetes like Max Domi and Kaapo Kakko.
• Players who need to leave the bubble during play — for childbirth or family emergency for example — will need to be confined to isolation for four days and need four negative test results before potentially being able to rejoin their team.
• NHL players have until three days after the Return to Play is ratified to notify their teams they're opting out of participating in Phase 3 or 4, under the protocols tentatively agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA. There will be no penalty for doing so.
• The number of people scheduled to be tested daily in the NHL bubble includes: any player/coach/staff member, officials, ice crew, security, hotel bartenders, food service staff, arena food and beverage workers, hotel housekeeping, hotel kitchen staff and player transportation. That will add up to thousands of tests per day.
• Organizational failures to adhere to the Return to Play protocols “could lead to significant financial penalties, and potentially the loss of draft picks” and could result in individual players being ineligible to play and removed from the secured bubble.
• For NHL purposes, the league is going away from the term "hub cities" and instead prefers the terminology Phase 4 Secure Zone, which makes it sound like something out of a science-fiction movie.
All of this is subject to being approved by a simple majority of the 700-plus members of the NHLPA, of course, and that isn’t a slam dunk. It’s likely to happen, but one suspects the final vote is going to be a close one. Even with it being conditional, it feels like the NHL has done this about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.
The biggest question now is whether the NHL is going to be able to pull all of this off.
There will be a requirement for upwards of close to 20,000 tests per day when there are 24 teams involved at the beginning of postseason play, and the testing will need to be rapid and universal throughout the 2-3 months that NHL teams will be playing. Already Major League Baseball is having issues with testing results getting backed up at the COVID-19 testing facility they are using, and it’s creating a situation where MLB teams are suspending practice until it gets resolved.
Could the same thing cause the NHL to come to a crashing halt?
Let’s hope not, because the Return to Play has been about as carefully considered as anything the NHL has ever done, and it really is beginning to feel like there’s going to be playoff hockey in August, September and October. There are still hurdles to be cleared to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs a safe, viable reality for everybody involved, but we’re saying there’s a chance.