- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
It has been 95 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:
How did teams handle the opening of team facilities during the past week?
Greg Wyshynski: Last Monday, the NHL officially reached Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol, with about a dozen teams reopening their training facilities for the first time since the season was paused on March 12. Players could use them on a voluntary basis. Some opened, some didn’t, for various reasons.
Players were tested for COVID-19 before returning to the facilities, and will be tested twice weekly going forward. There were temperature checks at the facilities as well. There were restrictions placed on the number of players who could use the facility at one time — including a maximum of six players for on-ice sessions — and on time spent in the facilities.
“There’s a pretty big time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” said Maple Leafs star John Tavares, who added that he took his sticks home to tape them in order to save time at the practice center.
Other teams opted to not yet open their facilities. The Carolina Hurricanes were among the teams that cited a lack of demand from players, who were content in continuing their training elsewhere. Other teams, like the Minnesota Wild and the Montreal Canadiens, had yet to put ice back in their practice rinks. In the case of the Canadiens, the team had laid off the crew that maintained the ice at Bell Sports Complex in Brossard, Quebec. Other arrangements were made, and the facility will have ice for players when they return to skate Tuesday. “Everything is ready. The Bell Sports Complex is ready. We have talked to all of our players about it. In fact, there are three of them in the market right now,” said owner Geoff Molson last week.
There were two positive COVID-19 tests announced last week. The Boston Bruins announced that a player tested positive, underwent two subsequent tests and both returned negative. The player remains asymptomatic. The Arizona Coyotes announced that a staff member had tested positive, is asymptomatic and is in isolation at his home. All other Coyotes staff and players involved in the Phase 2 testing protocol have tested negative for COVID-19.
The NHL announced that training camps will open on July 10. Does that mean the qualification round will start the final week of July?
Emily Kaplan: Not necessarily. Though we believe training camp will be roughly three weeks, that’s still something that has to be negotiated between the NHL and NHLPA, and commissioner Gary Bettman has said specifically that he’ll seek player input. Once the NHL hammers out details with the two hub cities (more on that in a bit) we’ll get more clarification about specific dates and the length of the tournament. Realistically, games the first week of August sounds about right. But again, there’s still so much to negotiate, and lengthy talks could hold things up.
The reason we got the date for training camp first is that players needed to be able to book travel; training camp is the first mandatory date for which players must return to their playing cities.
There is significant pushback from a group of NBA players on their return to play. Is there a similar situation with NHL players?
Wyshynski: The NHL and the NHLPA continue to have talks on a return-to-play plan, and it’s fair to say they’ve been less contentious than what we’ve read from the NBA and Major League Baseball talks — at least for now. But remember: The players have only agreed to a postseason format with their recent vote; they have yet to agree to actually return to the ice.
The next vote they cast will be on approval of Phases 3 and 4 — the opening of training camps and then finishing the season in two hub cities. It’s that second item that’s causing the most debate, because of all the details about life in “the bubble” on which players are going to have to agree. That includes a number of quality of life issues, including one major one: whether players can spend time with their families during the quarantine.
“A lot of guys have kids around the league and they’re already saying, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to see my family for two months.’ That’s something the NHL and the NHLPA are going to have to negotiate,” said Jordie Benn of the Vancouver Canucks, whose wife is expecting their first child in July. But he added that the hub city arrangement for players and their families is “not a deal-breaker. This is the business we’re in.”
Any update on when we’ll find out the identity of a hub city?
Kaplan: Reports swirled over the past few days about hub cities being chosen, but league sources have said they haven’t reached any decisions quite yet. That said, we’ve been told we can expect clarity as soon as this week.
A source told ESPN that the NHL and NHLPA on Friday had a discussion for the first time about hub cities. The NHLPA’s executive board (one player representative from every team) is scheduled to discuss the topic early this week. The NHL knows that along with its requirements — a welcoming government, the ease in locking down a tight bubble, enough ice, good facilities and ample luxury hotel space — it needs to accommodate the players, who must sign off on any decision.
Players know they are surrendering some freedoms by agreeing to come back and play, but they have also expressed a desire not to feel totally sequestered. Players want enough restaurant and entertainment options on off days to give them some sense of normalcy. A decision has also not yet been made on how many family members, if any, would be able to stay with the players and each team’s 50-person traveling party.
Given that there could be as many as three games a day, in an ideal world the NHL would pick one Eastern time zone city and one Pacific time zone city to space out the games and get maximum media attention. That said, having two separate time zones isn’t necessarily a requirement. And the league also hasn’t decided whether a team will be able to play in its own arena if it is a hub city.
Could, say, the Vegas Golden Knights end up playing in a Las Vegas hub?
Wyshynski: The New York Post reported on Saturday that the Eastern Conference would be housed in Las Vegas “as the league previously has indicated it would not allow a team to play at home, so the Golden Knights and the Western Conference will be located in the other hub city.”
While putting the East in a Western Conference hub could happen, the part about not allowing teams to play in their home markets is inaccurate. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly has said that the league sees “some merit to moving the club to a different market so that any perceived advantages associated with being in a home market are eliminated,” but he has stopped short of saying that it will be prohibited. Bettman has previously indicated that teams could remain in their own markets with “players staying in the same conditions that everybody else is.”
As an NHL source told us this week: “Anybody can play anywhere. It’s about finding the safest, best hubs.”
Any front-runners for the hub cities?
Kaplan: Chris Johnston of Sportsnet reported on Friday night that Vegas will be one of the two hub cities. That wouldn’t be a surprise; Vegas ticks nearly every box and the league has a long-standing relationship with the city. It hasn’t been a well-kept secret that the NHL is eyeing Sin City for the tournament. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week that MGM Resorts is keeping several hotels off the market for the NHL, and the league specifically requested non-gaming, non-smoking hotels (in line with a lot of teams’ requests when they are in town for Golden Knights games), leaving Vdara and Delano as two likely options.
A league office source stressed the NHL would still really like to pick a Canadian city. (For several reasons, but the main two: It’s cheaper to stage games there and the NHL still has a very large Canadian audience.) Toronto makes sense to give the NHL an Eastern time zone presence — and the NHL has staged a large-scale tournament there in 2016 with the World Cup of Hockey — but Vancouver and Edmonton still linger. But the NHL still needs official clarification from the Canadian federal government that the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for all visitors would be lifted. Since time is of the essence, the NHL has viewed that obstacle as a non-starter.
I’ve heard that Los Angeles is picking up a lot of steam lately as an option, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s chosen. The NHL would be able to use the Anaheim Ducks’ 280,000-square-foot training facility in Irvine, California, though games would likely be played at Staples Center. The Ritz-Carlton in L.A. Live would house the teams. There are plenty of entertainment options within that bubble that should appease the players.
Also in the “this came out of nowhere department,” the NHL is still considering Chicago. The league is familiar with the city, after several long playoff runs there recently and a draft in 2017. One theory floating around this weekend was that if the NHL couldn’t secure a Canadian site, Chicago would be the other hub. But that was shot down by an NHL source.
Will there be puck and player tracking during this postseason?
Wyshynski: In January, Bettman said that puck and player tracking would be “up and running in the arenas of all 16 teams that make the playoffs this season, and all arenas league-wide for the 2020-21 season.”
But since January was about three years ago in pandemic time, a lot has changed, and it doesn’t appear we’re going to have puck and player tracking in the restarted 2019-20 season. And that’s a bummer, considering these bells and whistles are the types of things that could have enhanced an “empty arena” broadcast.
There’s the technical challenge of getting a system up, running and tested in the short run-up to the postseason — and keep in mind the NHL changed course on its tracking tech, going with a hybrid version involving sensors placed on the players and inside the puck, with data collected by in-arena antennas, and optical sensors at ice level. There’s also the logistical challenge of having personnel on-site to manage it, as the NHL is limiting the number of personnel inside the hub arenas. And with the NHL and the NHLPA already dealing with several plates full of collective bargaining challenges, adding this as another discussion point doesn’t make sense. Fingers crossed for 2020-21!
Any updates on the collective bargaining front?
Wyshynski: The end of the month could provide an epic vote from the players, not only on approval of Phases 3 and 4 but on a potential framework for a new collective bargaining agreement. There has been positive momentum on the latter over the past few months, but there are still several issues that could end up derailing talks between the sides — including ones they haven’t even traded proposals on yet, with the clock ticking down to the start of training camps on July 10.
First, some encouraging news. Sources familiar with the negotiations said the two sides have an understanding on “the range” of where the salary cap will end up and for how many seasons, including how it’ll rise and when. They also have an understanding on a range for escrow and it being capped at a certain percentage going forward; talk is that it’ll be something in the range of 20-25% for two to three years.
These understandings are significant bits of business because they cover arguably the two most potentially contentious aspects of CBA talks since the financial landscape changed due to COVID-19: the monetary losses for the owners, as well as the money owed by the players in a 50-50 revenue split; and the impact on the salary cap in a system in which it’s linked to revenue, with the players holding the ultimate power here in negotiations. If they don’t agree to artificially inflate the cap in a “de-linked” system, then it’ll drop like a stone because of the revenue losses for the league.
There’s hope that the sides could have a “memorandum of understanding” on key CBA issues before the return to play, but not everyone is convinced it can get done with this amount of runway. Said a source familiar with the talks: “I have serious and significant doubts that they can push an agreement over the finish line that the players will approve.”
Finally, what’s your latest pop culture addiction this week?
Kaplan: I started watching Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” on HBO and thought the pilot was brilliant. Coel is a screenwriter and actress from whom I want to hear more. While on vacation last week, I finished “The Great Believers,” which is about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s, and the ending actually did destroy me.
Wyshynski: My wife and I were given a gift by Netflix this weekend when the second season of “Dating Around” dropped. It’s a show where one person goes on four to five blind dates and then chooses one for a second date. This might sound a bit pedestrian, but trust me, it’s not: Gorgeously shot in New Orleans, perfectly cast and an insightful study in both diversity and human behavior. If you watch one thing this week, make it the episode featuring Ben, a stammering professor with the best intentions and the worst dating game ever. It’s an all-timer in the candid reality genre.
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