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Life in the bubble: NHL details protocols for Phase 4 of return-to-play plan

Life in the bubble: NHL details protocols for Phase 4 of return-to-play plan

With the NHL season set to resume in a little over three weeks, the league has begun to finalize a plan for its bubble set up in two hub cities.

In an expanded postseason format, 24 teams will reportedly travel to Edmonton and Toronto to complete the 2019-2020 season and crown a Stanley Cup Champion in October. 

With speculations of how the NHL will complete its season brewing for weeks, the league created a 47-page document detailing how Phase 4 of its return will occur. The Athletic obtained a copy of this document and explained the extremely detailed rules and regulations.

Life inside the bubble remains a hot topic with the NHL finalizing its return-to-play plan and entering Phase 3 around July 13. 

From extremely intense testing protocols to elevator and water bottle regulations, here is what to expect from the NHL’s return.

Traveling parties

Similar to most bubble setups, the NHL will allow a limited traveling party to the hub cities. Each team is allowed 52 people in that party with no more than 31 players, three coaches, two athletic trainers, one team physician, one equipment manager, one massage therapist, one team psychiatrist/chiropractor, one team social media manager, one security official and one representative to serve as the compliance officer.

The new role of the compliance officer is tasked with certifying that the team complies with all Phase 4 protocol daily.

Every member of the traveling party as well as every staff member at the arena or in the bubble is assigned to a participant group based on their responsibilities. The participant groups determine how much contact they have with others and how strict their testing must be.

Group 1: Essential personnel to games being played

  • Who: Players, club personnel, on-ice officials, NHL hygiene officers, club compliance officers, locker room attendants, locker room security, facility compliance staffers, hotel conference service managers, world feed microphone staffers, event-level NHL staffers (social media, tech ops, penalty box officials, communications, hockey ops, player safety, NHL Studios), NHL staffers, NHLPA staffers, NHL event medical directors and those with the RT-PCR testing company.
  • Contact: These individuals will maintain close contact with one another but should have limited exposure to players.
  • Housing and testing: Group 1 will be housed in a secure-zone hotel with daily testing and temperature checks.t6

Group 2: Individuals with business functions

  • Who: Off-ice officials, credential staffer, certain hotel staffers and event coverage medical staffers
  • Contact: These individuals will not have access to player spaces. 
  • Housing and testing: Group 2 will also be housed in a secure-zone hotel and require daily testing and temperature checks.

Group 3: People with repeated contact with Groups 1 and 2 but for short durations

  • Who: Security, some event coverage medical staff, bartenders, food servers and ice crew
  • Contact: Group 3 is allowed limited contact with Groups 1 and 2.
  • Housing and testing: They will be housed in a separate hotel, may return home but will be tested and undergo temperature checks daily.

Group 4: Those with limited exposure to Groups 1-3

  • Who: Arena food and beverage workers, PA announcer, housekeepers, kitchen and prep staff and transportation staff
  • Contact: Group 4 will have very limited contact with the first three groups.
  • Housing and testing: They will also be housed in a separate hotel or at home and will undergo daily COVID-19 tests and temperature checks.

Group 5: No contact with any other group member

  • Who: Third-party vendors, other arena staff, other hotel staff, fire marshal, police and media
  • Contact: Group 5 is not exposed to any other group.
  • Housing and testing: They will be housed in a separate hotel or at home. They will not require coronavirus testing but will have daily temperature checks.

Finally, the NHL acknowledged that the bubble makes it difficult to players to support their families at home, so each team will assist in providing grocery and errand delivery services to their remaining family members at home. As needed, the league will also provide medical services like COVID-19 testing to players’ families.

Testing

Testing in the bubble will be done very regularly and thoroughly. Players, coaches, arena staff, hotel housekeepers and bartenders as well as many others may be tested daily. The league expects it may exceed 2,000 tests per day.

If players experience symptoms, they must immediately self-quarantine and contact a team doctor to undergo testing. If a player tests positive but is asymptomatic, they will receive an RT-PCR test to confirm the diagnosis. If positive, they will be expected to self-isolate until cleared. If negative, they must remain in isolation before they can be retested a day later. A person who tests positive and is symptomatic won’t be subject to additional tests unless a physician has reason to doubt the results.

If a player tests positive, they must show two negative tests to be deemed clear. Doctors must also declare players fit to return to game action.

Once a player tests positive, a contact-tracing investigation will immediately begin. Anyone who was in contact with that individual for 15 minutes or longer at a distance of six feet or less will have to self-isolate until further testing can be conducted.

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Safety precautions and hygiene in the secure zone

The NHL established a number of safety precautions and regulations within the secure zone and while at games. All members are expected to remain six feet apart at all times, including on planes and busses and while eating. Masks must be worn at all times except for when on the ice, coaches on the bench, broadcasters on air, officials during a game, players during an interview, while eating or drinking or while in someone’s own room. The league also advised players to wash hands regularly and be cautious with high-fives and fist bumps.

Within the secure zone, every player gets their own room and no guests are allowed in those rooms besides housekeepers and engineers. Family members who enter the bubble will be given their own room and must satisfy testing and quarantine requirements if they wish to reside in a player’s room. Every team will have its own floor.

The league also said elevator capacity must be limited and advised players not to use their fingers when pressing the buttons but rather their knuckles or elbow. Talking is prohibited in elevators.

Dining will be done in a buffet-style with plexiglass barriers separating servers from players. Players can also use contactless room service if preferred. 

While lobby and bar spaces will remain open, the NHL remarked that details for social activities will be provided closer to Phase 4 but cited the importance of mental health in that section.

In terms of in-game hygiene, water bottles cannot be shared, must be labeled and separated on the bench. Towels may not be shared either, and teams must have a minimum of 100 clean towels on the bench. Benches must be disinfected between periods.

Leaving the secure zone

Unlike other proposed bubble setups, the NHL is allowing its players to leave and return to the secure zone under certain circumstances. A player may leave if he is receiving a medical assessment or retrieving medical supplies, if he needs a consultation with a doctor of his choice or under extenuating circumstances like the birth of a child, family illness, death or another important event.

If anyone leaves, they must undergo four consecutive negative PCR tests over a four-day period and be quarantined until that happens to return. 

Penalties for noncompliance

The penalties for not complying to these regulations are severe. For players, they can face a strict quarantine for 10-to-14 days if they do not obey hygiene regulations. Teams can face fines or lose a draft choice. Third-party vendors can face contract termination. And NHL staff could face dismissal.

Opting out/cancelation

Once the league ratifies the protocol, players must notify the NHL within three days if they plan to opt out of the season. Throughout Phase 4, the NHL or NHLPA may contact the other at any point if it believes games should be canceled, postponed, delayed or moved for safety reasons.

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New York Rangers land No. 1 pick in 2020 NHL Draft Lottery

New York Rangers land No. 1 pick in 2020 NHL Draft Lottery

Just a few days ago, the New York Rangers were competing for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now, they are the owners of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

New York landed the first pick during Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery on Monday, as they were the lucky team to have their ping pong ball sitting at the top of the order. 

The league switched it up this season, as teams that fell in the qualifying round of the NHL restart were all eligible for the first pick. This was decided during Phase 1 of the NHL Draft Lottery when "Team E" ended up in the top spot. Here's how the draft shakes out now, before other teams are added after playoff results:

  1. New York Rangers
  2. Los Angeles Kings
  3. Ottawa Senators (from San Jose)
  4. Detroit Red Wings
  5. Ottawa Senators
  6. Anaheim Ducks
  7. New Jersey Devils
  8. Buffalo Sabres
  9. Minnesota Wild
  10. Winnipeg Jets
  11. Nashville Predators
  12. Florida Panthers
  13. Carolina Hurricanes (from Toronto)
  14. Edmonton Oilers
  15. Pittsburgh Penguins (optional to Minnesota)

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There was an interesting moment leading up to the selection, as the ball with the Rangers logo was dropped prematurely before commissioner Gary Bettman was able to confirm that it was the correct ping pong ball. Twitter immediately went into conspiracy mode, given that the Rangers had the second pick last year, but the fact of the matter is New York is now on the clock.

For the Rangers, that most likely means the addition of Alexis Lafrenière, an 18-year-old Canadien winger who is considered to be the bell of this year's ball. While Lafrenière is certainly talented, he's not yet viewed as a franchise-altering selection such as Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.

Still, there is reason for excitement in New York. A team that contended for a playoff spot in 2020 will now add another important piece for next season. 2019 first-round pick Kaapo Kakko, who struggled at times during his rookie season, is another talented scorer that carries lofty expectations. On paper, the future is bright for the Rangers.

However, dominating the lottery doesn't guarantee instant success. Dating back to 2015 when phenom Connor McDavid was selected by the Edmonton Oilers, the owner of the No. 1 pick has only made it past the first round of the playoffs once. That includes the New Jersey Devils, who have picked first overall in two of the last three years.

In terms of how this impacts the Capitals, it does potentially make Washington's matchups with the Rangers more challenging in the future. It's never ideal to see a division foe pick up another talented individual. Yet, the Rangers winning the lottery means the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were eligible, did not. That's always good news for the Capitals.

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Capitals could sit Lars Eller even if he is cleared in time for Game 1 against the Islanders

Capitals could sit Lars Eller even if he is cleared in time for Game 1 against the Islanders

The Capitals may be without forward Lars Eller in Wednesday's Game 1 against the New York Islanders even if he is cleared by the NHL in time to play. That was the thought of head coach Todd Reirden on Monday who expressed he would have to make a decision to avoid any possible injury that could keep him out longer.

Eller left the bubble in Toronto for the birth of his second child. He is now back in Toronto under quarantine in his room and cannot leave until he tests negative four times over a four-day period, per NHL protocols. It is unclear when Eller took his first test. If it was Monday, he will not be ready in time for Wednesday's game. If it was on Sunday, there's a chance he could be cleared to play by Wednesday.

"The NHL will be the ones that decide that, have the overall final call on it," Reirden said.

But even if Eller just manages to clear before the 3 p.m. game time on Wednesday, there's a chance he still may not play.

While under quarantine, Eller is not allowed to leave his hotel room at all.

"He’s not allowed to leave his hotel room, so he hasn’t been doing any exercise outside of his room and until we’re told differently that will be how it is," Reirden said.

That could be a problem.

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Eller first left the bubble on Aug. 5. By Wednesday, he will have gone a week without being on the ice or being able to exercise, beyond whatever he can do in his room. Typically in these situations, players get a practice in before getting back into the game lineup and Reirden made it clear on Monday that he may have to consider sitting Eller for Game 1 to prevent any sort of injury after missing a week.

“I think it’s something you have to consider is the player hasn’t been on the ice," Reirden said. "He obviously plays a huge role on our team and if you remember a few years ago the success and kind of the X factor that he was for our team when we won against Vegas. So I think it’s important that we handle this situation and make the proper the decision to give this player the best chance to be able to, if it’s not Game 1, then he’s ready to go for Game 2 and he’s as close to healthy in terms of conditioning-wise, he’s ready to go on the ice and be able to add the things he can add and do it safely so that we can have him for an extended time here in this playoffs because he is definitely a big factor in our team success.”

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If Eller is out, Travis Boyd will likely play in his place. Boyd centered the third line in Eller's absence in the last two round robin games.

Luckily, that is the only real question mark down the middle for Washington. Nicklas Backstrom, who missed a practice last week but played against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, said Monday that he had "no concerns" in terms of his status heading into the playoffs.

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