The NHL's coronavirus pause: Where the games could be played, latest on the draft, more

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, April 27, 2020

It has been 46 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continued, the 2020 NFL draft was staged virtually this weekend, to mostly positive reviews. Could that be a preview of what's to come for the NHL?

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: Not really, but we do have a clearer sense of what a return-to-play format would look like.

The NHL and NHLPA -- which have been in constant contact and must collaborate during this -- have created a Return to Play Committee, which will have regularly scheduled calls. On the committee: Gary Bettman and other NHL executives; and, according to the NHLPA, executive director Don Fehr, assistant to the director Mathieu Schneider, general counsel Don Zavelo and divisional player representative Steve Webb; as well as current players Ron Hainsey, Connor McDavid, Mark Scheifele, John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk.

The NHL is currently in the first stage of its restart plan: self isolation. The second stage would include getting players back in small groups at NHL facilities to begin working out -- and, perhaps even more important, getting on the ice to skate. Remember, most players don't have access to ice right now, and skating is obviously a crucial component for staying in hockey shape.

According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA is reopening team practice facilities beginning Friday for players in states and municipalities that are loosening stay-at-home restrictions. In an email over the weekend, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL has begun to evaluate doing something similar, but there have been "no decisions yet." Daly noted that the league is due to give teams and players new guidance in advance of Thursday, which is the day to which they have extended the self-isolation order.

Several states with NHL teams -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas -- have stay-at-home orders that are expiring by the end of April, though restrictions in each state might vary after that.

The New York Post reported that one team has told its players to be prepared for a return to training facilities on May 15. Former NHL player and current podcaster John Scottposted on Twitter that he heard NHL training camps will begin again on June 1, and that "European players are coming back soon." That has not yet been confirmed, nor has it been communicated to all players.

One critical detail to keep in mind: Fehr reminded us recently that "it's going to be very difficult to do anything" if borders between the U.S. and Canada remain closed. On April 20, the countries announced that restrictions on nonessential travel would be extended for another 30 days. That could easily be extended again.

Why not just cancel the season and focus on 2020-21?

Greg Wyshynski: Money. OK, there's also the unwavering desire of professional athletes to complete their season and compete for a championship. But mostly money.

Some estimates have the financial impact for squashing the rest of this season in the realm of a billion-dollar loss. So reopening would soften that blow for the league and its players in a variety of ways.

For example, Bettman said that if the Stanley Cup playoffs are outright canceled rather than played as a made-for-TV event, the league could owe its broadcast partners "credits against next season," since the bulk of the TV revenue is from the postseason and the league has already received its money from those deals this season.

When it comes to the players making up the revenue shortfall with escrow contributions, Bettman told Ron MacLean of Sportsnet, "I don't want to get into the specific numbers. The fact is that we have a system that made the game healthy, that has paid the players more than before the system was in place, and has made our game more competitive than it's ever been. The system works, in good times and in difficult times."

Is there a plan in place for where the NHL might play?

Wyshynski: Out with the campuses, in with the clusters. The NHL is looking at using two to four of its arenas as "hubs" where clusters of teams would finish the regular season -- which is very much still an objective for the league, despite the crunched timeline -- and play some form of the postseason.

Bettman said these NHL arenas "won't necessarily be divisionally based" but rather regionally friendly for teams to travel there. The plan "presumes there wouldn't be fans in the building," he noted.

As for location, they can be anywhere that "isn't a hot spot," according to Bettman.

"There's a number of criteria. What state is friendly? What province is friendly? What are they dealing with? Obviously the New York area is not very friendly. You look at Alberta, and it seems fairly friendly," said Colin Campbell, NHL vice president of hockey operations, in an interview with Sportsnet.

(As a reminder how quickly things move in these scenarios: The chief medical officer of Alberta called for an extension on its ban on mass gatherings through the summer within 24 hours of Campbell's interview. So, maybe not so friendly.)

Specifically, the NHL is looking for arenas with four dressing rooms, since an essential part of the "hub" plan is to stagger multiple games each day, like the World Cup or the Olympics. It's looking for arenas that have nearby hotels that are up to standards for NHL teams. It's looking for arenas that offer practice facilities, either attached to the building or within a reasonable distance, seeing as how multiple teams would need to practice.

Wait, I thought the NHL was thinking about playing games in North Dakota or New Hampshire. What happened to that idea?

Kaplan: The NHL looked into the concept, but it never got off the drawing board because of insurmountable issues on the back end. Here's how Bettman explained it to MacLean: "We can't play in a small college rink in the middle of a smaller community, because if we're going to be centralized, we need the back-of-the-house [amenities] that NHL arenas provide, whether it's multiple locker rooms, whether it's the technology, the procedures, the boards and glass, the video replay, the broadcasting facilities."

Which NHL arenas are in play?

Wyshynski: The NHL has been vetting about a dozen potential sites. Sources tell ESPN that the home rinks for the Minnesota Wild, Vegas Golden Knights, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers have been among those examined.

Las Vegas is a site that sticks out here, for various reasons. The NHL has had a long business relationship with the city, bringing the NHL Awards there years before the Golden Knights arrived. The team has a top-notch practice facility in Summerlin. T-Mobile Arena is positioned on The Strip, so hotel accommodation wouldn't be a problem in the least. While Vegas temperatures in July are not exactly hockey-friendly, the NHL is confident it can have playable ice anywhere due to its technology -- and without fans in the building and the doors closed, the quality should be maintained.

(For the record: While recent comments by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman about reopening the city have been widely ridiculed, she doesn't have jurisdiction over The Strip, according to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak.)

The Hurricanes probably aren't a front-runner. General manager Don Waddell told the News & Observer on Friday that the NHL discussed PNC Arena as a potential site but needed practice facilities for all eight teams to conduct training camps simultaneously. The team's practice facility in Morrisville, which would have two available sheets of ice, is still under construction.

"We'd love to be in a position to host for multiple reasons," Waddell said. "We're not at the top of the list, but we're still talking about it."

As for the Oilers, the situation in Alberta makes things complicated, but the NHL would love to stage some of this restarted season in Canada. If the goal is trying to squeeze as much revenue out of the 2019-20 campaign as possible, keeping costs low is essential.

"Obviously, to have it in Canada you're dealing with the 70-cent dollar now, which would be, in these tough economic times everyone's dealing with, it would be kind of an extra perk that any Canadian team would have, wanting to do it," Campbell said.

One site that Campbell was high on for potential use was Toronto. The NHL staged the 2016 World Cup of Hockey there, using it as a hub for several teams. "Toronto has a number of excellent pluses on their side to be one of the hub centers," he said.

If the NHL resumes, what would happen if a player tested positive?

Kaplan: The NHL is working through policy with medical experts they have retained to figure out a contingency plan for this scenario and to make sure it wouldn't derail the entire production.

"Everything depends on the facts and the entire set of circumstances," Daly told TSN's Ryan Rishaug last week. "But no, we do not believe that one positive test, even multiple positive tests, would necessarily shut the whole thing down."

What type of measures does the NHL have to take when reopening, either for training camps or games?

Wyshynski: Like many leagues, executives around the NHL are looking at how other sports are attempting to return to play around the world. Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka, for example, takes part in a weekly call with NBA, EPL and German soccer league executives. Among the nuances they've discussed: decreasing the amount of cross-traffic in practice facilities, having access to thermometers and maximizing the amount of airways that are going through the building so the virus can't be sustained.

"All of that will be important and taken into consideration if and when," Daly said.

Chayka said the nuances are as important as the big picture.

"Nothing's simple. Testing sounds simple, but it's very complex," he told ESPN. "How to train and isolate sounds simple, but it's really complex. Even how to get players in and out of a facility in a safe way is a more complex endeavor than one can imagine. But that's the new normal."

To put that new normal into perspective, La Liga, Spain's highest-level soccer league, is attempting to return to training in the second week in May. Among the plans circulated around the league, per a document acquired by The Guardian:

  • Phase one would see at least three tests being carried out on every player before a return to activity, "beginning with polymerase chain reaction and serology tests."
  • Phase two would be a return to individual training, which would involve daily serology antibody tests. Players who test positive would be immediately isolated. How careful are they expected to be? Consider that players "will arrive at training always in the same car and in kit, taking away the following day's kit in a sealed, biodegradable bag." The gym would be restricted to two players at a time. Players would wear face masks during practice.
  • Phase three would have teams in isolation, potentially in a closed hotel space occupied only by the team, with each player in his own room. They would not be allowed home. Training sessions are limited to three eight-player groups. After training, it's back to the isolation hotel.
  • Phase four, about a month later, would be a return to play.

As Chayka said, nothing's simple. And that's not even getting into emotional pressure points like an inability to see one's family for months and the perception of the NHL if it's given special exceptions on travel, mass gatherings or acquisition of COVID-19 tests.

What's the deal with the draft?

Kaplan: The 2020 NHL draft was scheduled to be held in Montreal at the end of June, and it has technically been postponed -- but we all know it's likely not going to happen in its typical form, live with all parties gathered in one space. Montreal should get a chance to host another draft in the near future.

As Bettman said on Sportsnet: "We don't live in a world of perfect anymore. We're going to have to make adjustments."

A virtual draft is most likely at this point, and the NHL paid close attention to how the NFL draft was executed this past weekend. Bettman floated an interesting idea to his GMs recently: What if they host a virtual draft in June before the NHL resumes play? The NHL would have to decide on this fairly quickly because of the logistics involved.

However, there is tantalizing upside: The NHL can capitalize on an otherwise dead period without live sports. The league office certainly took note of the NFL shattering its all-time draft viewership record, with 15.6 million tuning in across ABC, ESPN and NFL Network for Round 1.

Bettman's idea of hosting the draft before play resumes was met with mixed reaction. The biggest issue the NHL would have to sort out is the draft order, which is typically based on final standings. But there are plenty of other complications, such as teams holding conditional picks that are based on the standings or playoff results.

(For example, when the Vancouver Canucks acquired J.T. Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019, the Canucks agreed to send a first-round pick in 2020, but stipulated that if Vancouver did not make the playoffs this season, the first-round pick would bump over to 2021. And oh yeah, that was the pick sent to the New Jersey Devils in the Blake Coleman trade this February.)

Appearing on Sportsnet's "Tim and Sid Show" on Thursday, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahansaid that he supports hosting a June virtual draft.

"It's not ideal, we're never gonna be in a position for this year's draft where we're down on the floor together and mixing and mingling and making trades and talking to one another," Shanahan said. "So my view -- and it's just the view of the Maple Leafs, and I've talked to [Leafs GM] Kyle Dubas on this -- is while we know what we're doing now, which is not anything, we should get it out of the way and take care of it in June. I know other clubs, and I respect that they might have a different opinion, but certainly Toronto would support the league in doing it remotely in June."

Even though more than three months' worth of games for draft-eligible prospects have been wiped out -- including the Frozen Four, CHL playoffs and under-18 tournaments -- teams have shifted to virtual prep for the draft. Many teams are conducting Zoom interviews with prospects; interviews typically would have taken place at the annual scouting combine in Buffalo, New York.

"I don't think doing [the draft] in August or September is really going to change much," Shanahan said. "We're not going to see these young guys play any more. We've seen them all, we've got video on them all."

What about the draft lottery?

Wyshynski: If the NHL opts to hold the draft around June 5 -- and again, when Bettman "suggests" something, the general managers usually take it to mean that it's going to happen -- then the draft lottery will be held without the regular season having been completed. Several NHL sources said they expect the draft order would be determined by points percentage at the point in which the season was paused.

But the lottery itself is a different story. There's a real concern among some GMs that because we don't know which teams are in the playoffs, as they could be expanded to 20-24 teams this summer, there's a chance the same team that wins the first overall pick could potentially win the Stanley Cup a few months later.

One clear remedy, according to Bettman, would be for the NHL to reintroduce the rule that says "you can't move up more than a certain number of spots, which is how the lottery used to be." Currently, there are three different draws to determine the first three picks in the draft, in an effort to discourage tanking. From 1995 to 2012, the team that won the draft lottery moved up no more than four positions in the draft order. Under that rule, only the bottom five teams would have a shot at the first overall pick: The Detroit Red Wings (.275 points percentage), Ottawa Senators (.437), San Jose Sharks (.450, although the pick belongs to Ottawa), Los Angeles Kings (.457) and Anaheim Ducks (.472).

Are we starting to see contract signings influenced by the economic impact of the pause?

Wyshynski: Potentially. The Columbus Blue Jackets signed goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikinslast week to two-year deals. Both of their contracts start with a lower salary in Year 1 than in Year 2: Korpisalo's base salary jumps by $1.2 million, while Merzlikins' jumps by a full $2 million. There was immediately speculation that these were the first of many "back-loaded" deals we'll see for unrestricted and restricted free agents this offseason, with the first season of the contract carrying a lower salary so the player loses less to what's expected to be a massive increase in escrow withholdings.

Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen wouldn't confirm that was the motivation for the contracts. "There are always different motives for different structures, and they play a part in reaching for an agreement," he told ESPN.

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

Kaplan: I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is brilliant, and this weekend I streamed the stage version of "Fleabag," which is now available on Amazon. (It's only $5, and proceeds go to charity!) There was some overlap in the material from the popular TV series of the same name she adapted from the play, but I still loved every minute of it. It was especially cool to see her perform the material in a different medium. I also began reading Trevor Noah's memoir.

Wyshynski: Two Apple+ shows I've enjoyed recently. "Defending Jacob" is a Chris Evans series in which he plays an assistant district attorney who suddenly finds the lines blurred between upholding the law and being a father. The first three episodes really grab you. I also enjoyed Spike Jonze's "Beastie Boys Story" for what it was, which is a stage show featuring the band's surviving members that takes us through their history and, in turn, a history of New York's music scene, hip-hop, MTV's influence on pop culture and -- perhaps most interestingly -- how artists "age out" of the controversial and regretful material that launched their careers.

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