With each passing day and the evidence starting to pile up, it no longer seems like a question of if we’re going to get the NHL back in some form this season, but when.
The latest smoking gun is the fact the leagues and the players’ association have quietly established a Return To Play committee, which held a pair of virtual meetings last week and will do so again this week. Cue the raised eyebrows, Hockey Night In Canada theme song and maybe some Stompin’ Tom Connors for good measure.
Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele is among a handful of players who will have an important voice in this process. His involvement in the NHLPA team includes Connor McDavid, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk and former Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, along with association head Don Fehr and assistant Mathieu Schneider. Commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy Bill Daly and senior VP Colin Campbell are among those on the line for the NHL, along with legal counsel.
You can be sure the two sides aren’t coming together to chat about how they’re staying in shape or what Netflix shows they’ve been bingeing since games were paused March 13. No, they’re starting to drill down on the Xs and Os of how to kick-start a league that stands to lose $1 billion if the 2019-20 season can’t get up off the mat.
“We all can’t wait to be back playing hockey again soon,” Scheifele told reporters during an April 13 Zoom conference call. At the time, it seemed like nothing more than a throwaway line offering some faint hope to fans, especially with numerous NHL markets dealing with a massive spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths.
But life moves fast and plenty has changed since, including governments and health officials in many cities now discussing how they plan to ease restrictions and reopen to boost the local company. Sports are expected to play a prominent role, albeit in a very different format.
Details are beginning to trickle out of what this all might look like, with the NHL expected to give teams an update later this week.
Just as the NHL followed the NBA’s lead in shutting down in mid-March, there will be a similar follow-the-leader approach in ramping up operations. Which is why Monday’s news that the NBA will allow players to begin working out at their home training facilities starting May 8 was most interesting. The exception will be any markets that still have strict stay-at-home orders in place. No more than four players can be at the venue at any time.
Expect a similar move coming soon in the NHL. Allowing players to get back on the ice, first by themselves, then in small groups and eventually as a team, would be the order, a pair of agents told me. One of the challenges will be getting players back in the same city for this to happen. Most have returned to their off-season homes, and ongoing travel restrictions, especially for those who are overseas and would likely need to quarantine on arrival, which could make this difficult.
For example, Jets players are currently scattered around the globe, including Patrik Laine in Finland. How quickly could they all get back to Winnipeg, then get medically cleared to start taking some twirls at Bell MTS Place or Bell MTS Iceplex? Expect some further clarity from the league in the coming days.
Once players get some ice time under their belts, the next step would be a more formal training camp. Ex-NHLer John Scott added some fuel to the fire this weekend when he tweeted that camps will open June 1. He cited no source for his information, but Scott is still well-connected in the hockey community, so judge accordingly.
Just got word that the NHL camps will begin again June 1… European players are coming back soon #breaking
— John Scott (@johnscott_32) April 24, 2020
July is the target date to resume the regular season, which had just over three weeks left at the time the league was paused due to the pandemic. As we learned last week, the idea is to essentially lock down all 31 teams in four different “hub cities” to cut down on how much travel would be required, playing all games in those markets.
Winnipeg, despite having NHL-ready infrastructure and relatively low infection rates, is not among those cities currently being vetted. A lack of five-star hotel rooms is the biggest obstacle. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the regional favourite for the Jets’ base.
Details would still have to be worked out regarding testing and ongoing monitoring of players, coaches and staff, which I’m told is a big part of the Return To Play committee discussions. Curiously, Daly told TSN last Friday night that a positive test wouldn’t necessarily bring this whole experiment to a screeching halt.
“No, we do not believe that one positive test, even multiple positive tests, would necessarily shut the whole thing down,” said Daly.
“No, we do not believe that one positive test, even multiple positive tests, would necessarily shut the whole thing down.” – NHL deputy Bill Daly
If this all seems like an awful lot of headaches just to finish up a season at some point in September, before starting the 2020-21 campaign likely in November after an abbreviated off-season including a draft, free=agency and contract signings, well, it is. But money talks, and there are estimates that finding a way to award the Stanley Cup could cut that projected financial deficit in half.
I’ve heard from many folks swearing they wouldn’t watch a second of empty-arena summer hockey. I’ll believe that when I see it. Broadcasters, along with sports fans, are desperate for fresh content right now. That was proven by the record-setting ratings in both the United States and Canada for the just-completed NFL draft, which was done virtually and received plenty of praise.
No doubt executives in all leagues, including the NHL, took note of that immense interest and what it could mean for them going forward.
There are still hurdles to overcome, and nothing has been set in stone. All the best-laid plans will go awry if we experience a sudden surge in cases in the coming weeks, which isn’t out of the question. But for those who are pining for a return to hockey, you may get your wish. Just keep flattening that curve, folks.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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