The NHL's coronavirus pause: Latest on return plans, positive tests, camp schedule

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, June 22, 2020

It has been 102 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:

So, we hit some speed bumps in Phase 2. What happened with the Lightning, and what comes next?

Emily Kaplan: The Lightning had a lot of players stay in town since the NHL paused its season; guys love living in Tampa. In total, 18 players were participating in the Lightning's Phase 2 program, which is voluntary, small-group training sessions. However, last week the team found out that three of its players and additional staffers tested positive for COVID-19.

Once the Lightning got the positive tests, the team temporarily shut down its training facility, began contact tracing and tested everyone who had been at the facility. Once those results come back, the Lightning and the NHL (as well as medical advisers) will decide when it is safe to open the facility again. Sources say that depending on the results, the rink could reopen as soon as this week.

The news of the Lightning's outbreak came on Friday, the same day Florida reported 3,822 new cases of the coronavirus, a one-day state record. Also on Friday, MLB shut down all of its spring camps in Arizona and Florida after several positive tests.

"With a significant rise in cases in the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and the State of Florida we are imploring everyone in the Bay Area, especially young people, to help slow the spread of this pandemic by diligently following the recommendations of the government officials by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and continuing to wash their hands regularly," Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois said. "We need to work together as a community to slow the spread."

The Coyotes announced on June 13 that one of their staffers participating in Phase 2 had also tested positive, and is isolating at home in the Phoenix area.

Does this impact the stated goal of beginning Phase 3 (training camps) on July 10?

Kaplan: For now, it does not -- but it is troubling. The NHL announced late on Friday that of the more than 200 players who have been tested for coronavirus since Phase 2 began, 11 have tested positive.

The league knew it was inevitable to have some positive tests at this stage. Since Phase 2 is voluntary, players who participate are being tested, but they also are living with family members and have freedoms to go to the grocery store, be out and about, etc. The hope is that once the league gets to Phase 3 (training camps) and especially Phase 4 (the 24-team tournament), there will be more restrictions and monitoring of players; living in the "bubble environment" will help mitigate potential outbreaks.

Here's a good place to remind everyone that the NHL and NHLPA are still negotiating what health and safety measures will look like for both Phase 3 and Phase 4. Training camps will not open until those protocols are agreed upon. Though both sides have expressed confidence that it can get done, they are now on the clock, with July 10 less than three weeks away.

Since both sides are also discussing a potential CBA extension -- and hoping to sneak that approval in on or before July 9 -- there is plenty of work to be done, but also plenty of communication going on. The current CBA extends through the 2021-22 season.

Another thing that needs to be agreed on: a new critical-dates calendar. As it stands, the league year ends on June 30, which is coming up very soon.

What are teams and the league saying about naming players who test positive for COVID-19?

Greg Wyshynski: This issue was at the forefront recently, as a Canadian newspaper outed a Toronto Maple Leafs player for allegedly testing positive for coronavirus in his self-quarantine location. The item was published without an on-the-record confirmation from the player, his agent or from the Maple Leafs, who released a statement that read: "Per the National Hockey League protocol with respect to COVID-19, the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be commenting on reports surrounds testing for any of the club's players or staff. A person's medical information in this regard is private. The club will defer to the NHL's policy on handling the disclosure of positive tests results, in that the league will provide updates on a regular basis with aggregate totals of the numbers of tests conducted and number of positive tests reported without disclosing either the identities of affected clubs or players."

The league reiterated that policy and said it would not be identifying players who test positive.

Some players we've spoken to were under the impression that the NHL's anonymity on positive tests would extend into the postseason; in other words, if a player suddenly left the lineup because of a COVID-19 positive test, there wouldn't be a public acknowledgment of what put him out of the lineup, just that he was out. But a players' source tells us nothing to that end has been decided yet, and will be part of the final agreement for Phases 3 and 4.

Considering this news, where are the players on approving a return to ice?

Wyshynski: The feedback hasn't been good in recent days. One veteran Eastern Conference player told ESPN he believes the NHLPA is "50-50 on wanting to come back to play, because of the safety precautions, travel and logistics. Especially now with these cases rising, it seems more guys with families are skeptical."

A veteran Western Conference player told The Athletic that "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 (NHLPA executive director) 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."

There's growing frustration among the players about not having had a vote on Phases 3 and 4 yet, but it's difficult to hold one without the hub cities being named and with such disparity in information levels among the players. Some of them have returned to training facilities and are starting to become familiar with testing, distancing and other protocols they'll see in training camp and in the hubs. The majority of them haven't, and remain in their self-quarantine locations. As with any vote, there are going to be high- and low-information voters. But on this one, the lack of clarity on the protocols, and having upward of 75% of the players scattered outside the teams' cities, have created significant uncertainty.

Any update on when we'll find out about our hub cities?

Wyshynski: Multiple sources tell ESPN that this could be the week we find out about the hub cities, but there are a number of details that still need to be settled between the NHL and those cities, as well as between the NHL and the NHLPA on how these hub sites are going to be facilitated.

An NHL source confirmed that the number of hub candidates has been whittled down to around six locations. Las Vegas remains in play, as do Canadian cities Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. There are a lot of issues that need to be figured out, from hotel accommodations to off-ice activities to transportation. But when asked what the determining factor for the hubs is going to be, that source said: "a safe bubble."

It's pretty clear that the hub cities will be announced before the players' big vote on a return to the ice. "Hub cities will be a joint decision. It would seem unlikely that the cities aren't announced before our vote," said a source on the players' side. "That said, all of the rules surrounding the bubble for Phase 4 would have to be agreed upon, regardless of the city."

But it seems like Canada is getting one, right?

Wyshynski: An NHL source involved in the process tells ESPN that there's a "good chance" at least one of the hub cities for a restarted 2019-20 season will be in Canada, which many of us are suspecting at this point. There's growing speculation that Canada could end up hosting both hubs, especially after the Canadian government approved an exemption allowing players and team officials to cross the border, which is currently closed to non-essential travel until at least July 21. Called "cohort quarantine," it keeps players clustered together, but away from the general public, with regular testing.

Again, with infection rates and a "safe bubble" at the forefront of these decisions, it would appear that Canada's bids are gaining steam. But Las Vegas remains a destination many still expect will end up being a hub. Could the other one also be in the West? Yes, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly tells ESPN that having both hubs in, say, the Pacific time zone has "never been an issue" for the league's media partners.

Are any precautions being taken for older coaches or staff members?

Kaplan: As mentioned earlier, the NHL and NHLPA are still hashing out details on health and safety measures for training camps and games. That led me to wonder where coaches stand in all of this.

The NBA sent its 113-page health and safety protocols to teams this past Tuesday, which includes a lengthy process on identifying and "protecting" team employees designated as higher-risk for complications due to COVID-19. The language concerned the National Basketball Coaches Association, which saw potential for age discrimination. "We are also concerned with a coach's opportunity to work and to not have their ability to secure future jobs be severely jeopardized," the NBCA said in a statement. "Absent a significant threat, we believe a coach should be able to understand and assume their individual risks, waive liability, and coach in Orlando."

It doesn't seem like that's going to be a similar concern for hockey.

The NHL Coaches' Association has been in regular communication with deputy commissioner Bill Daly. According to Daly, the league has assured its coaches that when hockey returns this summer, there will be no restrictions prohibiting them from doing their jobs, nor will any coaches of a certain age or another at-risk demographic be prevented from being behind the bench.

Rather, it's going to be up to each coach to decide whether he is comfortable being around the team. Our sense is that most coaches will absolutely want to be behind the bench, as usual. However, if a coach doesn't feel comfortable being part of the team environment in the bubble for health or personal reasons, the league has said it will help accommodate that coach and it will not affect his job standing.

Again, nothing is final when it comes to policy, but most people I talked to are under the assumption that coaches will wear a mask behind the bench. Just imagine how foggy Paul Maurice's glasses may get if he's forced to yell with a mask on.

Hey, the NHL draft lottery is this week! Can we get a refresher on how it's going to work this year?

Wyshynski: Friday night is part one of the NHL draft lottery, and will determine if we need to have a part two. There will be three draws. The seven teams that aren't returning to play will take part. There also will be eight "placeholder" spots eligible to win the lotteries. The 15 teams will have previously established lottery odds per their points percentage ranking when the regular season ended on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If three non-qualification-round teams win all three of the top picks, we end there, with just one lottery drawing. Those teams would own the top three picks, and the rest of the draft order would be determined by the current standings points percentages of non-return-to-play teams, as well as the teams eliminated in the qualification round this summer.

However, if any of the "placeholder" spots wins a draw for one of the top three picks, then we're going to have a second draft lottery, which will be held in between the end of the qualification round and the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinals. That draft would feature the eight teams eliminated in the qualifying round, each with an equal shot of earning that pick (or picks).We can catch you up on the whole shebang in our explainer.

It should be a fun night. Well, for everyone but the San Jose Sharks, as they watch the Ottawa Senators have an 11.5% chance of earning the the first overall pick with the Sharks' first-rounder, acquired in the Erik Karlsson deal.

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

Kaplan: I've been plowing through "The Americans," and I'm near the end of Season 3. The storyline of Phillip Jennings seducing a high school student is pretty cringey. Reminds me of Season 4 Carrie on "Homeland." Fictional spies, man; they can be the worst.

Wyshynski: After months of watching the bandwagon chug along, we've finally jumped on to play "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" on the Nintendo Switch. It was a weekend filled with catching fish, shaking trees and bad puns. Also we were stung by wasps.

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