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NHL approaches Return to Play Phase 3

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Hub cities, exhibitions set for late July; Season could start July 30


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NEW YORK–It has been 112 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continue, there also have been continuous nuggets of new information regarding the potential resumption of the season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all affects 2020-21.
As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every week, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL’s relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week’s update. Get caught up on it all here:
So, we hit some speed bumps in Phase 2. What happened with the Lightning, and what comes next?
Emily Kaplan: The Lightning had a lot of players stay in town since the NHL paused its season; guys love living in Tampa. In total, 18 players were participating in the Lightning’s Phase 2 program, which is voluntary, small-group training sessions. However, last week the team found out that three of its players and additional staffers tested positive for COVID-19.
Once the Lightning got the positive tests, the team temporarily shut down its training facility, began contact tracing and tested everyone who had been at the facility. Once those results come back, the Lightning and the NHL (as well as medical advisers) will decide when it is safe to open the facility again. Sources say that depending on the results, the rink could reopen as soon as this week.
The news of the Lightning’s outbreak came on Friday, the same day Florida reported 3,822 new cases of the coronavirus, a one-day state record. Also on Friday, MLB shut down all of its spring camps in Arizona and Florida after several positive tests.
“With a significant rise in cases in the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and the State of Florida we are imploring everyone in the Bay Area, especially young people, to help slow the spread of this pandemic by diligently following the recommendations of the government officials by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and continuing to wash their hands regularly,” Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois said. “We need to work together as a community to slow the spread.”
The Coyotes announced on June 13 that one of their staffers participating in Phase 2 had also tested positive, and is isolating at home in the Phoenix area.
Does this impact the stated goal of beginning Phase 3 (training camps) on July 10?
Kaplan: For now, it does not -- but it is troubling. The NHL announced late on Friday that of the more than 200 players who have been tested for coronavirus since Phase 2 began, 11 have tested positive.
The league knew it was inevitable to have some positive tests at this stage. Since Phase 2 is voluntary, players who participate are being tested, but they also are living with family members and have freedoms to go to the grocery store, be out and about, etc. The hope is that once the league gets to Phase 3 (training camps) and especially Phase 4 (the 24-team tournament), there will be more restrictions and monitoring of players; living in the “bubble environment” will help mitigate potential outbreaks.
Here’s a good place to remind everyone that the NHL and NHLPA are still negotiating what health and safety measures will look like for both Phase 3 and Phase 4. Training camps will not open until those protocols are agreed upon. Though both sides have expressed confidence that it can get done, they are now on the clock, with July 10 less than three weeks away.
Since both sides are also discussing a potential CBA extension -- and hoping to sneak that approval in on or before July 9 -- there is plenty of work to be done, but also plenty of communication going on. The current CBA extends through the 2021-22 season.
Another thing that needs to be agreed on: a new critical-dates calendar. As it stands, the league year ends on June 30, which is coming up very soon.
What are teams and the league saying about naming players who test positive for COVID-19?
Greg Wyshynski: This issue was at the forefront recently, as a Canadian newspaper outed a Toronto Maple Leafs player for allegedly testing positive for coronavirus in his self-quarantine location. The item was published without an on-the-record confirmation from the player, his agent or from the Maple Leafs, who released a statement that read: “Per the National Hockey League protocol with respect to COVID-19, the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be commenting on reports surrounds testing for any of the club's players or staff. A person’s medical information in this regard is private. The club will defer to the NHL’s policy on handling the disclosure of positive tests results, in that the league will provide updates on a regular basis with aggregate totals of the numbers of tests conducted and number of positive tests reported without disclosing either the identities of affected clubs or players.”
The league reiterated that policy and said it would not be identifying players who test positive.
Some players we’ve spoken to were under the impression that the NHL’s anonymity on positive tests would extend into the postseason; in other words, if a player suddenly left the lineup because of a COVID-19 positive test, there wouldn't be a public acknowledgment of what put him out of the lineup, just that he was out. But a players’ source tells us nothing to that end has been decided yet and will be part of the final agreement for Phases 3 and 4.
Any update on when we’ll find out about our hub cities?
Wyshynski: Multiple sources tell ESPN that this could be the week we find out about the hub cities, but there are a number of details that still need to be settled between the NHL and those cities, as well as between the NHL and the NHLPA on how these hub sites are going to be facilitated.
The NHL’s plan to return to the ice
With the NHL on pause since March 12, the league and players’ association have come up with a return-to-play format featuring 24 teams.
An NHL source confirmed that the number of hub candidates has been whittled down to around six locations. Las Vegas remains in play, as do Canadian cities Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. There are a lot of issues that need to be figured out, from hotel accommodations to off-ice activities to transportation. But when asked what the determining factor for the hubs is going to be, that source said: “a safe bubble.”
It’s pretty clear that the hub cities will be announced before the players’ big vote on a return to the ice. “Hub cities will be a joint decision. It would seem unlikely that the cities aren’t announced before our vote,” said a source on the players’ side. “That said, all of the rules surrounding the bubble for Phase 4 would have to be agreed upon, regardless of the city.”
But it seems like Canada is getting one, right?
Wyshynski: An NHL source involved in the process tells ESPN that there’s a “good chance” at least one of the hub cities for a restarted 2019-20 season will be in Canada, which many of us are suspecting at this point. There’s growing speculation that Canada could end up hosting both hubs, especially after the Canadian government approved an exemption allowing players and team officials to cross the border, which is currently closed to non-essential travel until at least July 21. Called “cohort quarantine,” it keeps players clustered together, but away from the general public, with regular testing.
Again, with infection rates and a “safe bubble” at the forefront of these decisions, it would appear that Canada’s bids are gaining steam. But Las Vegas remains a destination many still expect will end up being a hub. Could the other one also be in the West? Yes, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly tells ESPN that having both hubs in, say, the Pacific time zone has “never been an issue” for the league’s media partners.
Are any precautions being taken for older coaches or staff members?
Kaplan: As mentioned earlier, the NHL and NHLPA are still hashing out details on health and safety measures for training camps and games.