The NHL commenced with Phase 2 of the league’s return to play plan on Monday with about half of the NHL’s 31 teams getting back to work in voluntary small groups to work out both on and off the ice.
It’s believed that most — if not all — Bruins players avoided hopping on the ice at Warrior Ice Arena while instead doing some off-ice workouts and testing as Phase 2 of re-opening Massachusetts was also underway.
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The NHL has a rough date for starting training camps around July 10 and the hope continues to be that the Stanley Cup Playoffs will commence in late July or early August. The 24-team format is in place for the postseason and the NHL has many of the other intricate details in place while still not yet settling on an actual start date for games to start being played.
One of the big issues still to be addressed by the Return To Play Committee, the NHL and the NHLPA is exactly what things are going to look like for NHL players when they resume play, when they would migrate to the hub cities hosting the actual games and what exactly they will be allowed to do while still living in some form of isolation or quarantine.
The NHL hasn’t even decided on those hub cities as of yet after naming 10 finalists a couple of weeks ago.
It’s also interesting that Major League Baseball is navigating such waters when it comes to immune-compromised players that might be at risk during a resumption in play. With NHL players like Montreal’s Max Domi and New York’s Kaapo Kakko fitting into that category as athletes living with Type 1 Diabetes, it’s certainly a significant detail.
That doesn’t even take into account NHL players with family members dealing with compromised immune systems or NHL players who simply don’t feel comfortable leaving their family amidst an ongoing global pandemic.
There could be any number of NHL players who simply don’t feel comfortable returning to play this summer, and that’s a situation the league will most certainly be facing before any games actually start getting played.
TSN’s Darren Dreger and Ray Ferraro, the two halves of the Ray and Dregs Hockey Podcast, weighed on this topic while on an NBC Sports Boston Zoom call last week.
“The NHL and the Players Association have worked wonderfully together through this process. There has been a singular focus and that is getting through this COVID-19 safely. Then you have the Return to Play committee with the five NHL players. I thought it was very telling that John Tavares on TSN last week said plainly ‘We don’t know what the world in the hub cities is going to look like,’" said TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger. “He didn’t say this, but one of the early concerns as you guys know was having availability and access with their families. How do you do that as close to risk-free as you can because you’re never going to be 100 percent risk-free?
“I think that’s where things could get a little snarly in the next little bit here. Because here’s what we know: We know that a good portion of the players from the 24 teams that they want to play. Who doesn’t want to compete for the Stanley Cup? Every player that plays in the NHL plays because they want to win the Cup and the money is great on top of that. But when they start to learn what the world is going to look like inside the hub and what the restrictions are, [when they learn] what kind of access they are going to have to their families? I think that’s when you’re going to get the undercurrent of the player that maybe doesn’t want to play.
[He] doesn’t want to play at all this year and just wants to keep things on pause and make sure the world is safe, and then kick off the 2020-21 NHL season when it’s safe to do that. There are a number of guys out there like that and it’s not just Max Domi, Kaapo Kakko and the guys with underlying health conditions. There are a number of players out there [like that], but they haven’t surfaced yet.
Ferraro wondered how those players — well within their rights to make the decision best for their respective families — will be received by hockey fans when postseason hockey inevitably gets going this summer to finish off the 2019-20 NHL season. And how they would be received inside the NHL dressing rooms where things like toughness and sacrifice are words that are used often in terms of building a winning hockey club?
Bruins players like Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara have played through things like punctured lungs and broken jaws in the Stanley Cup Final in years past, but clearly this a completely different kind of situation. And some NHL players could opt not to play if they don’t feel comfortable doing so, which may be a phenomenon in all of the major pro sports that hasn’t been taken into account as of yet.
“What do you think? Will fans say ‘I get that’ or will they sour on the player? I don’t see this as being grandly accepted because the fans want their guys for their teams playing all the time. They almost forget that they are people too with families. What if there’s a player that has a wife that’s expecting [a child]? Can you leave to go be with her? I don’t see how you could do that. This is where it’s going to get incredibly complicated in short order,” said Ferraro, an 18-year NHL veteran and longtime TSN hockey analyst. “I played in the 1980s and 1990s, which is far different than today. But I suspect that guys wouldn’t have been very happy with [players who opted not to play]. If 18 of us are playing and two of us aren’t, ‘Well why aren’t you playing?’
“It doesn’t strike me that it would be the most accommodating view of the guys. That puts incredible pressure on people that maybe aren’t very comfortable. It’s one thing to say ‘I would do this’ or ‘I would do that’ but [it’s different] when you’re put to the test of it. When you are put to the test of going to play or staying at home, some guys are going to stay at home. It would be incredibly remarkable if all 500 players said ‘yeah, we’re all going in.’ That would seem more unlikely than the other way.”