NHL still faces series of intertwined decisions to pull off summer return

An-empty-Scotiabank-Arena-which-played-host-to-the-2016-World-Cup-of-Hockey

Scotiabank Arena, home the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Frank Gunn/CP)

With the ball now rolling, they could be playing real live NHL games again in two months.

At least that loomed as the distant hoped-for outcome as the league took a step forward Monday by transitioning to the next phase of its return-to-play protocol.

Nothing has happened quickly since the season was paused March 12 and this is no different: Phase 2, which sees team facilities opened for voluntary small-group workouts, began with just a handful of clubs taking part.

That should grow to roughly two-thirds of the 24 teams tabbed for a potential restart by the end of the week, and will include all of them well in advance of mandatory training camps getting underway — something that won’t happen before July 10.

The truth of the matter is there’s still no ironclad guarantee we get that far. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association haven’t signed off any protocol covering Phase 3, much less established a date for camps to start, and are engaged in discussions on a potential extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which may or may not be needed to see the 2019-20 season concluded amid a pandemic.

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So, yeah, there’s a lot being juggled at a time when the Stanley Cup is typically being awarded.

The league continues to press forward through uncertainty, just as it has since the COVID-19 crisis started. It is trying to stage a summer return — how would an Aug. 8 puck drop sound? — and must navigate a series of intertwined decisions in order to pull it off.

As of Monday afternoon, the NHL had still not started narrowing down the list of potential hub cities from 10, according to a source. That should happen in the near future with commissioner Gary Bettman having previously indicated that he’d like to decide on the two hosts somewhere around the middle of June.

Tied to that decision is the status of a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering Canada, which stands as a barrier to playing games here. Discussions are ongoing with the federal government about whether that might change, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

“They understand the issue and our timeline, and I expect we will get their definitive views in due course,” said Daly.

Ideally the NHL would like to include a Canadian city in its return-to-play plans to go with Las Vegas, which is widely viewed as the favourite among U.S.-based choices. There’s comfort and familiarity with Toronto after how smoothly things went logistically during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and both Edmonton and Vancouver boast low coronavirus infection rates in addition to their amenities.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Even once there’s resolutions on those issues, an overarching agreement will have to be finalized with the players.

The sides are biting things off in chunks. First they agreed on the 24-team format and last week they finalized some of the finer details about how the tournament will work. However, the press release carrying that news Thursday included an important caveat: “The agreement is subject to the NHL and the NHLPA reaching an overall agreement on resuming play.”

That will cover everything from insurance to testing protocols to how life will look inside the bubble and what access, if any, players will have to their families. A new CBA isn’t technically necessary because the current deal runs through 2022 but there have been discussions about ways to transition through the financial challenges brought on by COVID — perhaps with a fixed salary-cap number and capped escrow payments, plus the anticipation of a new lucrative U.S. television rights agreement on the horizon.

As those talks continue, many players remain at their off-season homes awaiting official word about when they’ll be required to report for training camp.

That will be the most significant sign yet that all of this planning might yet bear fruit.

A relatively small number of players are jumping straight into Phase 2 immediately but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Monday saw NHLers skating at NHL facilities in Toronto, Edmonton, Vegas and Long Island.

It’s something.

It’s a start.

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