The NHL's coronavirus pause: The keys to play resuming, latest on the 2020 draft, testing and more

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 19, 2020

It has been 67 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 seasonbecause of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continue, there have also been continuous nuggets of new information being provided regarding the potential resumption of the season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all impacts 2020-21.

As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every Monday, 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 here:

Has there been an update on when play could resume?

Emily Kaplan: Another week passes, and we have nothing firm to report. On Tuesday, commissioner Gary Bettman appeared in a virtual town hall hosted by the San Jose Sharks. He said ending the season without awarding a champion is "not something I'm even contemplating." That tracks with what we've heard behind the scenes: the NHL league office is bullish on concluding the 2019-20 season.

Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille told season-ticket holders Thursday that it seems the NHL is "leaning toward" jumping right to the playoffs instead of trying to conclude the regular season, confirming what we reported last week. (The working plan is a 24-team playoff field, which would include bubble teams such as Chicago and Montreal, but as with everything, that's subject to change).

The NHL and NHLPA's jointly appointed Return to Play Committee convened Tuesday and Wednesday and kept working over the weekend. A person on the committee's calls told ESPN that he is "optimistic" they will be able to announce something soon. The group, which is a mix of NHL and NHLPA execs as well as a handful of high-profile players, has been hashing out protocols for what the return would look like. That includes:

  • How long training camps need to be (roughly three weeks is the current word) and the playoff format
  • How quarantine and testing procedures would work (for example, since Russia has seen a spike in cases, would players who spent time there be forced to self-isolate for 14 days upon return?)
  • What happens if someone tests positive (deputy commissioner Bill Daly has said that the NHL wants to get to a point where one or two positive tests won't shut the entire operation down)
  • Players' desires to bring their families with them to hub cities (something the NHL is expected to accommodate)

There is serious momentum heading into Monday's board of governors call, and many are hoping the NHL and NHLPA could announce a return-to-play package as soon as this week. While we have nothing concrete just yet, this week is shaping up to be a critical one in the NHL's quest to get back onto the ice this summer.

The NBA players' union had its members vote on restarting the season. Has the NHLPA done anything similar?

Kaplan: Not quite. The NHLPA executive board consists of 31 player reps, one from each team. Each of the player reps is responsible for taking the pulse of his teammates. Once a return-to-play proposal is presented, the NHLPA executive board would determine whether a full vote should take place.

What's the latest on the format of the season restart?

Greg Wyshynski: At the moment, there doesn't seem to be any momentum for restarting the season with all 31 teams. The pushback from players on teams far outside the playoff picture, combined with the logistical nightmare of every team reconvening at centralized sites for the sake of a dozen games has, for the moment, muted enthusiasm to play out the regular season. Instead, a 24-team playoff format is on the front burner as a way to finish out the season and satisfy those teams on the bubble that were a few points out with 10-12 games remaining.

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said it's the equitable way to involve teams around the playoff bubble that didn't have a chance to win their way in during the last dozen games of the season.

"The tough part is that if you're a team that was sitting on the bubble, challenging for a wild-card spot, playing great hockey and then it shuts down, you're going to think you were playing your best hockey and had a chance of making it, and they probably did. Those teams are going to want a chance. To do that, you have to expand past 16 teams," Nill told ESPN late last week.

"The league has to do the best for the game. I think it's important to expand the playoffs. There are just too many teams that are two to three wins from each other. To be fair to everybody, for the welfare of our game, I think it's important that we look at the larger format. If it's 24 teams, we're all for that. It's important for every market that's in those situations to be a part of it."

As has been previously reported, plans are for six teams to cluster at four centralized arena sites, most likely aligned by division. While initial reports indicated that alignment could include sub-.500 teams in the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks, that's not the case: The New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks would likely be a part of a 24-team format, with the Rangers realigned to the Atlantic Division "hub." (Plans for Chicago are a little more murky.)

The new wrinkle is that the NHL may not jump directly to the playoffs. One scenario would have the teams at the hub arenas facing each other in a round-robin to determine playoff seeding. Another scenario would have the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds meet in a short series to determine who earns the top seed, while the other four teams play each other to determine who advances to the round of 16.

This format would help satisfy an objective for the NHL and an objective for the NHLPA. The players have been adamant about playing some games before jumping into the intensity of the playoffs. But these games will also help NHL teams meet the obligations of their local broadcast rights and sponsorship agreements. Every dollar they can make in a season restart is one they won't have to credit back on next season's contracts.

Is this going to happen? An NHL source tells us that it's "really too early to say" that the round-robin format is the one they'll settle on. Another NHL source said "it's on the front burner, but that changes daily." Still another said it's not even set in stone that there will be four centralized locations for the restart.

But in the end, the path to the postseason is only one piece of a gigantic puzzle. "The playoff format is less of an issue than where we do it and when we do it," one NHL team executive told us.

What's the most critical aspect for the NHL right now?

Kaplan: Testing. It's all about the availability and procurement of coronavirus tests.

Ever since the pandemic began, the NHL has been consulting with Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases for Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital in New York. Farber chats with Gary Bettman and Bill Daly regularly, and provides his expert opinion to the board of governors on conference calls. The NHL declined an ESPN interview request for Dr. Farber; however,the doctor appeared on Bloomberg Radio this past week, which was a revealing look at how he views the current climate -- and what he's probably telling NHL leaders.

Here's Dr. Farber, speaking generally about what professional sports leagues would need to do to resume (while acknowledging he has consulted with one of them): "It can be done, but it has to be done with so much detail, and it's not going to be done the way it used to be done," Farber told Bloomberg. "It will literally have to be in a very closed environment where players cannot leave for a period of time, they'll have to be tested on a regular basis. It's going to be harder for certain sports, like football, much harder, because of the number of people involved. It's not clear that anybody is going to be able to pull it off -- and particularly if there is a shortage of tests. Because you're going to have to test all of these people very, very often. Probably every two days, three days at the most, maybe more often. It's not a matter of just taking the fans out of the stadium and putting on these games. There's a lot of work and a lot of problems."

In the interview, Farber also noted that scheduling will have to adapt -- including the notion that back-to-back games will be more difficult, because of the risk of exposure. He also said he believes resumption of play will have to be limited to a few sites, to reduce travel. That may explain why the NHL really latched on to this four-hub city plan.

So where does the NHL stand on testing?

Kaplan: Let's first consider what has happened in baseball. As MLB also pushes to return, the league reached a deal with a testing lab in Utah. The lab would provide coronavirus tests for roughly 3,000 baseball players and support staff, but also provide thousands of tests to the public.

The NHL is sensitive to ethical concerns of procuring tests -- especially the perception that they are taking them away from the public -- and league sources say there have been discussions about doing something similar to MLB. There have been great strides in the availability of tests and accuracy of them since the pandemic first broke out, but if the NHL resumed today, it still probably wouldn't be in a place where it felt comfortable purchasing the thousands of tests needed. This is because that as Farber is advising, everyone would need to be tested quite regularly (again, he suggested "every two days, three days at the most"). There's also the issue of cost. Each test could retail for about $100 each, which would add up quickly.

There have also been discussions, on a team level, of what precautions would be needed to keep the facilities safe when they open up to players and staff. For example, it might not be realistic to administer swab tests to everyone who comes in the practice facility each day, and the results are not instantaneous enough. So teams are considering other less invasive options, which might be part of the new normal. Neil Glasberg, who is one of the top coaching agents in the NHL, has partnered with a Texas-based company that produces infrared cameras that can detect elevated skin temperatures. The cameras can be installed at buildings' entrances, similar to where you would typically see a metal director. According to Glasberg, several NHL teams are interested. Another issue arising for teams: Who fronts the cost for these extended measures? Would it be the building operators, or are the NHL clubs on the hook?

While team facilities remain closed, are players accessing ice time at private rinks?

Wyshynski:Stars GM Jim Nill said that the team has put ice back in their facilities -- but his players aren't the ones using it at the moment. "They're starting to open up now. You're limited to 50 people inside the facility. Everybody has to wear masks, other than when you're on the ice. They're opening it up to figure skaters, people like that," he said.

As more and more states are beginning to reopen businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL continues to prohibit players from using team training facilities.

"[The NHL] knows there's going to be different areas that open up at different times, but none of us are allowed to open up our facilities until we get a mandate from the league that everybody can do it," Nill said. "It's not fair if our guys can get up and start skating two or three weeks ahead of everybody else. It's just not right."

So what happens if, say, a player for the Stars wants to use another rink or a gym in Texas?

"That's a great question. We've talked to our people. We've told them what the league rules are. A lot of these players have their own gyms in their houses, things like that. But as far as skating, our guys aren't allowed to skate unless they're injured," Nill said.

While that's correct as it pertains to team facilities, the fact is that NHL players can skate if they want to. They have been skating in Sweden throughout the COVID-19 shutdown. Players back in North America aren't prohibited from getting on the ice, either, although NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said "the recommendations in place would discourage it."

What's going on with the players' last paychecks?

Wyshynski: The NHLPA executive board was voting over the weekend on whether to extend the deadline on what to do with the players' final paychecks. Please recall that the players deferred those checks from April 15 while deciding whether to contribute all, part or none of them into escrow, in preparation for the NHL's revenue shortfall this season. Revenues are split 50-50 between players and owners; escrow is withheld to make up any deficit. The Hockey News notes that the players' final checks are for around $120 million in sum.

Ultimately, this ties into an underlying aspect of all of this season restart stuff: The lingering collective bargaining agreement conversation between the players and owners.

What's the latest on the 2020 draft?

Kaplan: We're still in a stalemate here, but the longer we go without an announcement, the likelier it is that we won't get a draft in June -- or before play resumes.

The NHL stated its case for an early June draft in a memo circulated to teams earlier this month. The NHL thinks it's prudent for several reasons, including getting a key piece of league business out of the way and capitalizing on a dormant sports schedule to engage with fans. But there was enough pushback from teams (especially GMs) to hold up the deal. Now front offices are getting a little antsy, hoping the NHL will just make up its mind already so everyone can prepare accordingly (as of now, teams have been going full steam ahead, including virtual interviews with draft-eligible prospects). A decision on the draft could be made as soon as Monday afternoon, when the board of governors has another regularly scheduled call.

What kind of pushback is the early draft getting?

Wyshynski: As the draft memo indicated, one of the concerns from GMs was that the same team that wins the draft lottery could win the Stanley Cup if it's held prior to a playoff format being established. While that's a real concern, it's not the only one regarding an expanded playoff field's effect on the draft.

"Before it was about 31 teams coming back, but when you have 24 teams in the playoffs, that has an effect on the draft. Bringing more teams into the playoffs that would have made trades knowing they're out of the playoffs a few months ago are now in the playoffs. There's a balance the league has to maintain to figure that out," one team executive told ESPN. "You have the advantage of being sellers [at the deadline] and still getting into the playoffs. A goalie gets hot, the other team gets an injury, things could change quickly. Now you have a team that's picking eighth, and they're in the third round of the playoffs."

But the biggest issue with the draft right now might be timing. The league indicated it needs about a month to ensure the technology of doing a remote draft is refined to the point where it can be a televised event, like the NFL's. It's now May 18. The draft was originally scheduled for June 26 and 27.

Why was Max Domi in the news this week?

Wyshynski: Because of Mitch Marner. The Maple Leafs star expressed his concern for Domi while streaming a video game on Twitch this week. "What if someone gets sick and dies? It's awful to think about, but still," Marner said. "There's dudes like [Max] Domi who has diabetes. If he gets it, he's in [a predicament]."

Domi acknowledged his health concerns. "Being a Type 1 diabetic, it's something that raises some concern. But you really don't know how everyone's going to be affected by this disease. Being a Type 1 doesn't change much. I would handle myself the same way as if I didn't have [diabetes]," he said.

The Canadiens center stressed the seriousness of the coronavirus. "Everyone is affected by this in their own way. A lot of people have been struggling. A lot of people have suffered loss. It's been a really tough time for everyone, and you have to be sensitive to that. You have to understand that this is very real. People have gotten sick from this. People have died from this. All you can really do is do your part, stay at home, stay safe and be respectful of any rules that were put in place," he said.

How are the players feeling in general about the season restart?

Wyshynski: While there are a variety of opinions on the players' side about if, when and how to restart the season, two players we spoke with last week were in favor of the league returning to the ice.

"As long as health and wellness is always the first thing we're thinking about, for the players, for the trainers or the equipment managers and everyone else. As long as the doctors from the NHLPA and the NHL have been consulting and they decide it's OK to return to play, I'd be excited to play whichever [playoff] format," said Colorado Avalanche forward J.T. Compher.

New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick likely won't be back on the ice until the 2020-21 season, but he thinks the NHL will feel a sense of obligation in returning.

"At some point, I feel like there's going to be a desire to contribute to society. And I don't think there's going to be a perfect return-to-play protocol. There's going to be some sacrifice. There's no comparison to the way it was, in my opinion. But at some point we have a responsibility, I think, to provide some entertainment to people out there for whom sports was their resolve and their escape. At some point, it's our job to make the best of what's been a very demanding worldwide event," he said. "I think it's our responsibility as players to not only act in our own best interests, but at some point we gotta get back out there and give the people what they want. They miss their sport."

Finally, what's your latest pop culture addiction this week?

Kaplan: Keeping with the comedy theme from last week, I was really skeptical of how a two-man improv show would translate into a Netflix special -- let alone an entire series. But I watched a few episodes of "Middleditch & Schwartz" this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Wyshynski: From the ashes of "Flip or Flop" on TLC is "Flipping 101," hosted by Tarek El Moussa. It's got some "First Time Flippers" DNA combined with that of "Bar Rescue." It's entertaining television if you're someone who likes to see novices shamed for their backsplash choices. I've also fired up "Splatoon 2" on the Nintendo Switch again in preparation of the surprise Splatfest this week. Because despite Fortnite's presence in my life, I apparently need to be embarrassed by even more 9-year-olds on a video game.

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