Why NHL players must remain in the cities where they play

Chris Johnston joined Sportsnet Central and spoke about the latest CDC recommendation of cancelling events of 50 people or more, and how that affects the NHL going forward.

Every member of society is now being asked to make sacrifices in order to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

That includes NHL players, who really have no idea if the resume button will ever be hit on their paused 2019-20 season.

But for now, in addition to self-quarantining, players are being told to stay close to their home NHL cities. In fact, a memo went out Saturday requiring any member of a
Canadian team that left for the U.S. to return immediately so that they can serve their government recommended quarantine expeditiously — especially since that quarantine may become mandatory at some point.

The league views that as an essential step while it tries to piece together a plan that will allow for the Stanley Cup to be awarded this season.

“Two reasons, really,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said via email on Sunday. “For their own protection in avoiding potential at a very high-risk time. And to give us an opportunity to assess the overall health of the NHL community.

“[It] will allow us to plan reasonable next steps.”

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This situation is so fluid that Saturday’s memo represented a small change from one issued Friday afternoon, which initially allowed players who lived apart from their families during the year to go back to their primary residences.

With new information comes new instructions.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association are trying to navigate these matters while dealing with a shifting set of parameters in the cities and countries where they operate: In this case, a warning from Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to Canadians on Saturday about the importance of returning home amid escalating restrictions.

“Airlines have cancelled flights,” said the ministry. “New restrictions may be imposed with little warning. Your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected.”

There’s legitimate concern the border could be closed without warning, in which case we’d have much larger things to worry about than questions about when or if the NHL season could resume.

(Depending on the exact circumstances, the answer would likely be ‘no chance.’)

However, even if it remains open to commercial travellers, the Canadian government has ordered a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine upon return from other countries. The NHL would like players to observe that period as soon as possible, in part because it’s necessary before the next phase of return-to-play protocol can be triggered and also so it can get an accurate read on where they’re at.

Somewhat incredibly, no NHL player has a confirmed case of COVID-19 as of early Sunday afternoon, according to Daly. But some players could still be asymptomatic or awaiting the results of tests.

There’s also no confirmed count on how many players left their home NHL cities after the season paused and needed to return. The best available estimate was somewhere in the range of 20 to 30 — a handful of which still have special permission to be away. It’s a requirement for everyone else because players continue to be paid and thus need to be in the mandated city to properly perform the services spelled out in their contracts.


Otherwise, they could technically be found in breach of their deal.

That’s why, regardless of nationality, there are 700-plus players stuck in a holding pattern in the cities where they play. They’ve been instructed to avoid public gyms and not to rent any ice on their own to skate, since the league has promised an adequate amount of time to get back in shape if the season is able to resume.

Those players are essentially trying to avoid contracting COVID-19 before teams get the go-ahead to open facilities for them to return for skates and workouts in small groups — something the NHL has told its clubs will be at least another full week away, if not longer, according to Daly.

As a result, NHL players are currently in pretty much the same situation as the rest of us: Sitting at home, with little to do but wait and wonder about what comes next.

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