By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
The NHL and sports in general were dealt a pretty rough blow on Friday. With the dates for the start of Phase 3 already announced and players well into Phase 2 in their own communities, the NHL was working their way back to playing.
Approximately two weeks into Phase 2, the NHL released news that 11 players have tested positive for COVID-19, among them three members of the Tampa Bay Lightning and reportedly Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews. The Lightning shut down their training facility in response to this while further contact tracing was conducted. In addition, the Philadelphia Phillies had five players and three staff members test positive and shut down the training facility in Clearwater and the Toronto Blue Jays followed suit.
It is clear that this pandemic is far from over and presents new challenges for sports to make a return.
With that in mind, the NHL has not changed plans to return yet. The goal remains to start Phase 3 on July 10. According to a report from Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Phase 3 training camps would last two weeks in the club’s home city, then the teams would travel to the selected hub cities on July 23 or 24. Every team would play one exhibition game over the next week with the best-of-five qualifying round and round-robins starting on July 30.
The biggest hurdles remaining on all of this are that many players are not yet participating in Phase 2 or in their NHL cities yet, and players have not yet voted in agreement to actually return to play.
According to The Athletic, there are mixed emotions on returning to play. One prominent player in the Western Conference expressed a lot of concern with returning.
“This just makes no sense to me,” the player said. “Right from the return-to-play format announcement and this Phase 2 thing that none of us have to be in, they’ve put the cart before the horse. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and they’re shocked there’s an outbreak? And it’s a long ways off to July 10, so you can’t tell me more and more guys won’t be testing positive as more and more guys start to get back to town.
“Guys are not happy. This is why we better have a full player vote and not just an executive board vote. But I’m not convinced Don Fehr is going to allow that because he knows there’s so many of us on the fence. That’s why I think the league was trying to be hush-hush on these positive tests.
“In my opinion, no way we play.”
The belief is that as great as 35 to 40 percent of players who are part of the 24 teams in the playoff are on the fence about returning, and that figure could be higher.
A lot of players are concerned about time away from family, the uncertainty in the length of the various phases in the return-to-play plan, and other health and safety concerns like prevention, testing and handling of positive tests.
The last part is especially concerning. If one team were to experience an outbreak and have multiple positive tests, would those players be pulled from a series? And if they were, how would that affect the integrity of the playoffs and the legitimacy of a champion?
Of course, there are many long-term effects that could come if the NHL were to again go on pause and not play. There could be months without any action and that could lead to complications when the league looks for a new US television deal next season. This has a lot of players on the side of the league about a return.
One such player is Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Originally skeptical of the idea, Dubnyk cites some of the hub city arrangements improving as a reason he has come around.
“Both sides are working extremely hard to try to get something done both for this year and CBA wise,” Dubnyk said to The Athletic. “It takes some time to get everything together, present it to the players, get votes as far as the CBA and even as the protocols go, it takes a while to gather, to get all the information to guys and then take a vote.
“What they were saying is, if we were to sign the CBA on July 9, we could start training camp on July 10. But if we wait and guys don’t come in a short enough amount of time to get the quarantine rules out of the way, we could sign it but then it’s another two weeks on top of that. I think everybody agrees that if we’re going to do this, we might as well get going. And the sooner the better. So they’re hanging on to that July 10 date. That would be ideal, but I don’t know if it’s realistic.
“It feels like (we’re going to play) now,” Dubnyk said. “I think we’re going to find out over the next few weeks a lot more how things are going to go with these and more positive tests popping up, how people react to them, all that kind of thing. Before I didn’t feel like we would. Now I’m leaning more towards it feels like we’re going to.”
Speaking of hub cities, it feels like the NHL is getting closer to announcing the two cities where they will attempt to return. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, it is believed that the original list of 10 cities has been narrowed to six. All three Canadian cities in the running — Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver — are still in the running, as is Las Vegas. The other two cities were not identified.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman added that Vancouver is a city that is reportedly picking up steam as the league gets closer to making a decision. That decision is expected to come this week. Canadian government has already given the go-ahead for these potential hub cities to allow the NHL to return, so athletes would be able to return to Canada and play if any of the cities were chosen. Timing is critical in this decision, since the league would need to work out deals within the hub cities for hotel accommodations as well as any potential activity outside of the hotels that the players could access while remaining within the bubble.
The other critical part to this week outside of the selection of hub cities is the next update on testing within Phase 2. With 11 players testing positive out of “an excess of 200 players,” the question remains will there be more positive tests in the next week and how will these 11 recover over that time.
It’s a lot to sort out, and with just under three weeks to go until that July 10 date, what once felt like nearing the end could be only the beginning of more problems. How the NHL handles this week, the decisions on potential hub cities and the pending results of what are sure to be more testing could make or break the rest of the 2019-20 season.