Although he hasn’t been able to play hockey for more than two months (and counting), Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has stayed plenty occupied while the NHL remains suspended over the novel coronavirus. Workouts are conducted in a “decent little basement space” at his Toronto house, where the 29-year-old center lifts weights and stick handles golf balls to stay sharp. New recipes are whipped up in the kitchen, meats are barbecued on the backyard grill, and family walks are taken around the neighborhood when the weather is nice. If this were an ordinary season, perhaps Tavares would still be competing in the playoffs right now, consumed by chasing a Stanley Cup with his hometown team. Instead he is relishing all the extra quality time with wife Aryne and infant son Jace, who recently celebrated his eight-month birthday.
“The little guy started crawling this week,” Tavares says. “That’s been a game-changer.”
Not long ago, Tavares’s agenda was made even busier when he accepted an invitation to serve on the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee, a working group of a dozen or so players and executives—including commissioner Gary Bettman, players’ association head Donald Fehr, and Oilers star Connor McDavid—tasked with mapping out scenarios for the league’s resumption … whenever that ultimately may be. Early on, Tavares reports, the committee was holding two to three Zoom meetings a week, ranging from 20-minute check-ins to wide-ranging discussions that ticked past an hour and a half. Lately, though, “the frequency of calls has certainly picked up quite a bit,” he says in an interview. “We’re getting closer to [having them] every other day now, as we try to create some clarity, as best as we can, on many fronts for everyone involved in the hockey world, which would be a really positive thing.”
For now, the NHL remains far away from dropping the puck on its 2019-20 season again. Team facilities are still largely closed by league mandate, self-quarantining is still recommended, and many international players are still overseas at their offseason homes. Even so, Tavares describes a “great sense of urgency” among himself and fellow Return to Play Committee members “to hone in on what the competitive format’s going to be, to give everyone a sense of what it could look like when we get back. Obviously when [exactly] that will be, we don’t know … But in terms of how to finish the season, and how to award the Stanley Cup, I think we want to get something figured out soon.”
In particular, Tavares cites a “24-team concept” as one that’s been “kicked around the most” on the committee’s most recent calls. Under this scenario, round-robin games would be held at geographically based hub sites—to help determine seeding and to help players ease back into competition—followed by an expanded playoff format. “Certainly there’s still a priority to finish the regular season and play the playoffs,” Tavares says, “but as time goes by, you have to consider all our options with the information we have. The 24-team concept has been brought up quite a bit. But there’s been other concepts, other numbers of teams. We’ve thrown around everything. Nothing’s been decided on.”
Scheduling is far from the only issue that remains in flux. Some are major glaring obstacles for any return-to-play plan: Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sports world in mid-March, the NHL has steadily opposed mass-testing teams at the cost of public resources, but comprehensive testing would be essential before players, coaches, and other employees could return to the rink en masse. And just look at what emerged from Major League Baseball’s 67-page health-and-safety manual—daily temperature checks, limited dugout seating, no high-fives or hugs or lineup card exchanges—as an indication of the exhaustive minutiae that Tavares and his colleagues are sorting through.
“I’m sure when you come to the rink, the entrance you come in, how you interact, the normal things you do that you take for granted on a daily basis will be a lot different,” Tavares says. “There’s a lot of talk about temperature checks, the possibilities of wearing masks … that’s all the stuff we’re discussing. What’s safe? What’s not? What makes sense? What doesn’t? Is this possible? Is this not? There’s so many different things to cover and it continues to evolve.”
As one of five players on the committee—alongside McDavid, Ottawa’s Ron Hainsey, Philadelphia’s James van Riemsdyk and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele—Tavares is also constantly calling and texting Maple Leafs teammates and other peers around the league—to relay new developments and to check the broader pulse of NHLPA membership. “Obviously, we want to play,” Tavares says. “Guys understand how fortunate we are to play a game for a living, and if we have that opportunity, we would be very excited about that, especially knowing the state the world is in, and the positivity that could bring back. But, at the same time, the health and safety measures have to be at the highest of standards.”
Here Tavares is not only referring to establishing quarantine and testing protocol for NHL players at these potential hub sites, where they could potentially remain for months as the playoffs play out, but for the consensus desire to have their loved ones living there as well. “Obviously the family situation has been paramount,” he says. “From the get go, the league has continued to talk about understanding those concerns. A lot of the calls we’ve had have been very positive that way. That continues to be a focal point in terms of the things that have to check the boxes for us, and for the league as well.”
Opinions are more wide-ranging when the topic of restart scenarios is brought up. “I’m not sure I’m completely 100% sold on any format,” says Tavares, whose Maple Leafs sit three points ahead of the Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division, “but the biggest thing is honoring the regular season as best as we can while still giving each team that deserves the opportunity, or still has an opportunity to make the playoffs, to be a part of that.”
At a certain point, though, Tavares knows too much to avoid getting bogged down by details. “It’s difficult to determine the fairest way of going about it, with so many different variables that were out of your control, in terms of games teams have played, the opponents they have left to finish the season, how many home games … ” he says, trailing off.
Indeed, further specifics are hard to come by, mostly because nothing has been decided yet. How long will an abridged training camp last before games begin? What if border-crossing players need to quarantine per government regulations? And where would all those COVID-19 tests be coming from? “It’s amazing how things change daily, weekly, monthly,” Tavares says. “There’s so much unknown.” And even if some small clarity arrives from Monday’s regularly scheduled Board of Governors meeting, Tavares understands that there’s still a long road ahead. “Just trying to be patient, not trying to be in a rush, and trying to do this to the highest of standards to know, if and when we get the green light, we all feel comfortable and confident and focused on playing,” he says.
So why, then, “the great sense of urgency” to finalize the format itself? As Tavares explains, it’s as simple as what so many others worldwide are looking for these days: a plan for the future. “We’ve obviously gone a pretty significant amount of time in terms of following the stay-at-home protocols, social distancing, not being able to go to team facilities and train,” he says. “Mentally it’s challenging to not really know. We still have so many unknowns. We really can’t answer a lot of stuff. But if we’re able to at least understand what coming back will look like, if we’re able to come back, it can give a little bit of clarity so everyone can wrap their head and mentally prepare for what things may look and feel like.
“Because it’ll obviously be very different than what we’re used to on a daily basis. It’s going to be a new normal, if we’re going to be able to play, or when.”