The Winnipeg Jets finally took flight on Thursday, opening Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play protocol behind closed doors and under a shroud of secrecy.
Players were permitted to skate at Bell MTS Iceplex for the first time since a global pandemic shut down the season in mid-March. However, the club refused to say who participated or even how many players showed up.
No reason was given for keeping everything so hush-hush. Per NHL regulations, no media or fans were allowed on site and the Jets didn’t provide any photos or videos of the action, which might have offered clues, the way many other teams have done over the past month.
The Jets are the last team to open their doors for this stage, as the majority of players left the city for their off-season homes and only returned in the past couple weeks. The mandatory 14-day quarantine required for those returning from outside Canada has been waived for NHL players, replaced by a shorter stay in isolation (believed to be one week) as long as multiple COVID-19 tests are negative.
“The Government of Canada has issued an exemption to the mandatory isolation order under national interest grounds for team members and staff of the NHL. As ongoing conditions of the exemption, players and staff must comply with the NHL’s public health plan, and (the Public Health Agency of Canada) must approve any changes to that plan. This gradual and measured resumption of professional sports is another step towards safely restarting many of the activities that were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” a federal government spokeswoman told the Free Press.
The Jets have declined to offer specifics about the quarantine protocol, but it’s likely some late-arriving players who only got back to the city in recent days are still locked down.
Phase 2 attendance is voluntary, with everyone required to abide by extensive health and safety regulations including mandatory testing. As of Monday, the NHL said 396 players had reported to club facilities around the league, with 23 testing positive. Another 12 players who were skating independently have also tested positive.
The NHL and NHLPA struck a tentative agreement earlier this week outlining both the short and long-term future of the league, including how a 24-team Stanley Cup tournament will be held later this summer in hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. There is also an extension of the collective bargaining agreement through 2025-26, which includes Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026.
Players began voting on Wednesday, and results are expected Friday.
As long as a majority give it the thumbs up, Phase 2 around here will be short-lived. The Jets will begin Phase 3 on Monday in the form of a mandatory summer training camp that is expected to run for a couple weeks before the team heads to Alberta to begin life inside the bubble environment. The Jets can carry an expanded roster of 31 skaters.
They will play an exhibition game or two the week of July 27, then begin a best-of-five qualifying series around Aug. 1 against the Calgary Flames. The winner will advance to the traditional round of 16, facing either St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas or Dallas in a best-of-seven series. The loser will have a one-in-eight chance at the No. 1 overall draft pick, expected to be teenage phenom Alexis Lafreniere, based on the results of the NHL draft lottery last month.
Media will be allowed inside the empty rinks to cover training camp and playoff games under strict regulations, including COVID-19 testing.
The Stanley Cup is expected to be handed out no later than Oct. 2, kicking off an abbreviated off-season that will include the draft around Oct. 6 and free agency on Oct. 9.
Following a very short pause, camps are expected to begin around Nov. 17 in advance of a Dec. 1 start to the 2020-21 season.
The NHL is planning on a full 82-game calendar, which is expected to run into the summer once again given the late start. Whether games will be played in front of fans remains to be seen, but the current infection numbers in the United States aren’t encouraging.
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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