Now that the great migration is upon us, with charter flights originating in Finland and Sweden set to bring NHL players back to North America, so too is the formidable challenge of maintaining momentum towards resuming the season.
It boils down to a simple equation, really.
More players in their playing cities means a greater number will be tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis and that’s almost certain to result in more identified coronavirus cases among the NHL population.
That’s before you take into account anything else happening in the regions where those players are heading. There’s been a recent surge in cases across the southern and western parts of the United States, in particular, and the Tampa Bay Lightning had to shutter their practice facilities for six days after three players and a couple staff members produced positive tests.
They reopened on Wednesday morning.
The Lightning players were among 11 new cases announced by the NHL at the end of last week — a number that could be viewed as either shocking or encouraging, depending on your perspective. Both the league and NHL Players’ Association had been prepared by medical experts to expect more positives as they transition to increased testing, which is why Jason Spezza took an upbeat view of the news: "In the grand scheme of things I think we’re doing pretty well as a league," he said.
He wasn’t presenting a head-in-the-sand viewpoint, either.
The veteran Toronto Maple Leafs forward is well-versed on the issues and was merely being realistic about where things stand right now.
This is a critical juncture in the league’s return-to-play ambitions with not just health and safety protocols and hub city selections on the verge of being finalized, but also players moving towards being ready for training camps still tabbed for a July 10 opening.
Less than half of the 750 players needed for a NHL restart are currently being tested as part of the carefully controlled Phase 2 workouts. And absolutely no one is limited in what he can do away from the team facility, whether taking part in small-group sessions or not.
While many of us have been wondering how the league might react to an outbreak once it gets everyone stationed inside a hub-city bubble during the playoffs, the road to reaching the competition phase could be even bumpier. That’s because players are going to be gathering in greater numbers with each passing day and the 24/7 bubble isn’t expected to be placed around them for another month yet.
"I’ve been involved in a lot of the [return-to-play] talks and I’m pretty confident that once we get into hub cities we’ll be able to do a good job of keeping it out," Spezza said Tuesday. "I think getting there is going to be the challenge and that’s where it takes a little bit of discipline on our part as players to make sure we don’t kind of derail the plans."
All signs still point to things going ahead, with a charter plane set to bring a group of NHLers from Helsinki to New York on Friday. A similar flight is planned this week for players who have been back home in Sweden as well.
Meanwhile, travel has picked up for players stationed around different parts of North America. Those entering Canada must still observe a 14-day quarantine before hitting the ice while some travelling to the U.S. or within Canada must observe a seven-day quarantine period, depending on their mode of travel, per the rules set out in the NHL/NHLPA agreement governing Phase 2.
For everyone else, the guidance is simple: Exercise extreme caution.
That’s not easy to do with local restrictions starting to ease off in most cities, but the fate of the NHL season hinges on it.
"I think one of the biggest challenges for players in general is just as everything around us starts opening up we almost have to tighten up because we’re going back to play," said Spezza. "And that’s going to be an adjustment for us because it seems like things, at least here in Toronto, are slowly going to be opening up and we have to probably be a little more careful as we get close to training camp here."