NHL return-to-play update: Game schedule, testing plans, players opting out and more

    Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

It has been 123 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the sports world continues to reckon with adjusted schedules around the world, there also have been continuous nuggets of new information regarding the resumption of the NHL 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. We’re getting closer to a return to the ice, and there’s a new collective bargaining agreement that will ensure labor peace for the next several years. We’re one step closer than we were in last week’s update. Get caught up on it all here:

Read more on each of the postseason teams in our playoff guide.

There is officially a schedule of upcoming games! Give me a quick rundown.

Greg Wyshynski: The best-of-five qualification round begins on Saturday, Aug. 1, with three Eastern Conference series from Toronto and two Western Conference series from Edmonton:

No. 11 New York Rangers at No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes (TOR)
No. 10 Florida Panthers at No. 7 New York Islanders (TOR)
No. 12 Montreal Canadiens at No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins (TOR)
No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 5 Edmonton Oilers (EDM)
No. 9 Winnipeg Jets vs. No. 8 Calgary Flames (EDM)

On Aug. 2, the other three qualification series will begin, as well as the first matchups in the round-robin tournament that the top four teams in each conference will take part in:

No. 10 Minnesota Wild at No. 7 Vancouver Canucks (EDM)
No. 11 Arizona Coyotes at No. 6 Nashville Predators (EDM)
No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets at No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs (TOR)
Round robin: St. Louis Blues vs. Colorado Avalanche (EDM)
Round robin: Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers (TOR)

There are six games scheduled for Aug. 3, including the Washington Capitals facing the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars playing the Vegas Golden Knights to open their round-robin slates. Qualification-round (if necessary) and round-robin games are scheduled through Aug. 9.

Times have yet to be determined for all of these games, but they will be scheduled on a staggered basis:

  • The start times in Toronto will be noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET.

  • The start times in Edmonton are 2 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and they may fluctuate by up to 30 minutes during the qualifying round depending on when earlier games end.

For those of us who have wanted this “games all day” early-postseason setup for years, this is a dream scenario.

What comes next in the timeline?

Emily Kaplan: The 24 teams participating in this summer’s tournament report to training camps today. They’ll then travel to their hub city — Edmonton for the Western Conference, Toronto for the Eastern Conference — on July 26. Teams will each get an exhibition game between July 28 and 30.

The first round of the playoffs begins on Aug. 11, the second round on Aug. 25 and the conference finals on Sept. 8. Players’ families will be able to join them in the hub city by the conference finals — and by that point (and for the conclusion of the tournament) everything will be consolidated in Edmonton. A fun note: This is the first time the Stanley Cup Finals will be played entirely in Canada since 1925.

The NHL also laid out a new tentative critical dates calendar, though all of these dates are subject to change: the Stanley Cup Final will begin on Sept. 22 and end no later than Oct. 4. The 2020 NHL draft is scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10 (the second round of the draft lottery, to determine who gets the No. 1 pick, will be held on Aug. 10). Free agency will start in mid-October.

Finally, the NHL is targeting a Dec. 1 start date for the 2020-21 season, with training camps opening on Nov. 17.

On Saturday, commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated the NHL hopes to have a full, 82-game slate next season, which means the Stanley Cup could be awarded in July 2021. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr confirmed to us on Sunday that players also have an appetite for squeezing 82 games in.

“We know we are going to start late, the odds on that are overwhelming,” Fehr said. “We still think we can get a full season in if we do some manipulations with the schedule, and that’s certainly the goal.” (Given the league’s broadcast partnership with NBC, and the fact that the Tokyo Olympics have been moved back to 2021, it’s safe to assume the league will want to award the Stanley Cup before the opening ceremonies begin on July 23).

Some players have opted out already. Anything to gain from their reasons?

Kaplan: Over the weekend, we got a small wave of opt-outs. So far, here are the six known players choosing not to participate: Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, Canadiens defenseman Karl Alzner, Oilers defenseman Mike Green, Canucks winger Sven Baertschi, Stars defenseman Roman Polak and Bruins defenseman Steven Kampfer.

Most of the players cited family or personal reasons, with some expressing a concern about contracting the virus and potentially infecting someone at risk in their family. For example, in 2019, Hamonic’s then-8-month-old daughter was hospitalized with a respiratory illness. “I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping the team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said in a statement, released by his agency, Titan Sports Management. “Being my little kids’ dad everyday is the most important job I have.”

The 34-year-old Green, who was traded from Detroit to Edmonton this season, cited “deeply personal family health reasons” for opting out. Green had several ailments in his time in Detroit, during which he missed significant time in the 2018-19 season after battling a virus that attacked his liver.

Kampfer, who played 10 games with the Bruins this season, revealed that his wife and son have a congenital defect that could cause complications with the virus. The 31-year-old Kampfer called it “one of the hardest decisions” he has had to make.

Polak, meanwhile, already told reporters in his native Czech Republic last month that he wouldn’t be a part of the NHL’s restart, so his absence is not a surprise.

Those are all players choosing to opt out. Are there any players the NHL might force to sit out?

Kaplan: According to the protocols, “players who, after consultation with Club doctor who conducted PPME, and the Club’s infectious disease expert, are determined to be at substantial risk of developing a serious illness as a result of exposure to the novel coronavirus shall be deemed to be unfit to play and shall not be permitted to participate in either Phase 3 or Phase 4. A player may initiate a second opinion concerning his fitness to play status pursuant to Paragraph 5 of the Standard Player Contract.”

There were two players that immediately came to mind: Canadiens center Max Domi and Rangers winger Kaapo Kakko, who both have Type 1 diabetes. Over the weekend, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin said he and Domi agreed to wait 7-10 days to determine whether he will be joining the team for the rest of the season.

We haven’t heard an update on Kakko yet, though Rangers president John Davidson addressed the situation in June. Kakko, 19, is playing in his rookie season after being selected No. 2 overall in the 2019 draft.

“If the doctors and the world of science told us not to play him, he’s not playing. It’s that simple,” Davidson said in an interview with MSG. “As of right now, we look to have him in the lineup. We think it’s safe, as long as he follows the protocol and we all do too. We understand the whole thing from A to Z. It’s been studied by our doctors in many different forms. If there’s a change that comes along and they say we don’t think he should play, he’s not playing. But if they give us the green light and he, himself — it’s his decision, remember — wants to play and he talks to his family, he’s playing.”

What happens if a player or someone working for an NHL team tests positive for COVID-19 in Phase 3 or Phase 4?

Wyshynski: In Phase 3, all players and personnel that are designated to have “player access” are tested 48 hours before returning to the facility and then on an every-other-day basis. Test results must be available within 24 hours, or else they can’t enter the facility. In Phase 4, the players, team staffers and basically everyone inside the bubble that could have contact with them will be tested daily.

The protocols after positive tests are the same in both phases. If an asymptomatic individual tests positive, they take a confirmatory test. If that’s negative, the individual remains in isolation and is retested after 24 hours. If the test remains negative, they can exit isolation and return to their activities. If the confirmatory test is positive and the individual remains asymptomatic, they need two consecutive negative respiratory specimens taken more than 24 hours apart to return; or they can return upon the passage of 10 days since the first positive test, providing the person has remained asymptomatic during the entire period of their self-isolation.

If a symptomatic individual tests positive, they must test negative twice on the basis of the CDC test-based strategy after the resolution of any fever, and also have experienced improvement in respiratory symptoms; or if the person has had no fever and no respiratory symptoms for over 72 hours provided that the person has been in self-isolation for a minimum of 10 days since the onset of the symptoms.

Symptomatic players who test positive must refrain from exercise for a 14-day period from the time of the first positive test and must be cleared to return to play after cardiac testing.

As commissioner Gary Bettman said, getting the CBA and “return to play” protocols done was hard. But executing these plans is another grind. “The task of bringing 24 clubs together in two hubs, putting on as many as three games a day, having the hotel and accompanying setups that we need for the hubs, making sure the testing and the protocols are adhered to. This is — to quote somebody famous — this is not the beginning of the end; this is the end of the beginning. So we’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said.

How will positive/quarantined players be denoted for injury purposes? Upper-body?

Wyshynski: The NHL has prohibited teams from releasing either injury or COVID-19 news about their players, and will handle public disclosures about either through the return to play process. If you thought “upper-body” and “lower-body” were vague, get ready for “not fit to play” or “unable to practice,” which TSN reports teams will use to explain any player’s absence.

Public identification of players who test positive is going to be one of the most controversial aspects of the restart. For the players, it’s a matter of medical privacy, and the NHLPA said that keeping individual test results confidential was a “high priority” for the players in negotiations. But some fans and media believe players who test positive should be identified like they would be for any other injury, because word will get out anyway if a player is out of the lineup suddenly, and it could dramatically affect wagering on playoff games.

“Essentially in this country, what we believe in is that certain medical things are private unless somebody chooses to make them public. That’s difficult to maintain in an industry like ours, but you do the best you can across the board,” said Fehr. “If the people who are betting on games think the information is insufficient to make a bet, they shouldn’t bet.”

While individual and team test results may be held in secret, the NHL said it plans on releasing general testing information throughout Phases 3 and 4, as it has done on a semi-regular basis during the pause.

“We understand as a league we have an obligation of some transparency with respect to the COVID virus in particular. At least for now, we’re going to maintain a policy where the league is announcing basically league numbers, and clubs are really prohibited from giving any information with respect to COVID test results, and for purposes of making the system work, any injury information going forward,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “We will be releasing numbers. We’ll be releasing positive test numbers that the media and the public will know what kind of situation we’re in, but we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re doing it on a club-by-club basis or a player-by-player basis because I think the interests of medical privacy are important, and we’re going to protect them.”

We’ve seen reports of food and accommodations provided that did not meet expectations in other league’s bubbles that have already opened. Do you think that will be an issue for NHL players?

Kaplan: I posed that question to Fehr on Sunday. Here’s what he said:

“I think the fact that the NBA photos came out will help prevent that. I’m reasonably satisfied that we’ll be able to do that. The proof will be in the pudding when we get there. We’ve been talking from the beginning about creating bubble atmospheres,and bringing in what somebody called — maybe Steve Mayer from the NHL called — ‘pop-up restaurants’ from people who really know what they’re doing. I’m not terribly concerned about that. In these circumstances, you do the best you can, but I’m certainly hopeful that won’t be an issue. And if it is, you’ll hear about it more than once.”

Do either the NHL or NHLPA have a threshold for positive tests that could shut down the tournament?

Wyshynski: If they have one, they’re not revealing it.

“We look to our medical professionals more than anything else as to whether we’re in a high-risk situation. We have been looking toward our medical professionals from the start and experts from the start in terms of where we’re in danger and where we’re not. I think we have a good handle on a protocol. It’s actually a protocol that was agreed to among the various professional sports leagues and run by the CDC, and it’s gone to the White House,” said Daly. “Again, I think one positive test shouldn’t shut down the tournament, but obviously we have to be very cognizant of player health and safety, and if we have an outbreak situation, it turns into a different judgment at the end of the day. There’s no hard-and-fast numbers on that. That’s more a sense of the medical professionals, and we’ll take our lead from them.”

Fehr told ESPN that the players have a similar view.

“Yes, when my doctors tell me that it’s something that we have to think about, and that something has happened that they think is severe enough that it raises that issue,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to handle it. Look, neither Gary nor I have the kind of medical or public health training that’s necessary to make those kinds of judgements. We have to rely on the experts to tell us what to do. The NHL has its own doctors. We have Dr. John Rizos [NHLPA medical consultant], who’s been with us for years. We have Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, who’s about as good as they come. We’re going to rely on them to tell us what to do.”

And as always, what’s your latest pop culture addiction this week?

Kaplan: Haim’s new album is delightful. That’s been my go-to soundtrack while I bike around Chicago in this 90 degree heat! (Not that I’m complaining; everyone should be spending their time socially distancing outside right now if they can.)

Wyshynski: Two words: “Supermarket Sweep.” Netflix added a bunch of old episodes from the blissfully weird game show. Come for the people loading up their shopping carts with large gold-foil hams; stay for the awkward charms of early 1990s clothes and hair.

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