What happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19?
That’s the most frequently asked question as the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association move closer to a 24-team tournament to crown a Stanley Cup champion for the 2019-20 season.
But it’s only one of the questions hanging over the NHL’s return to play.
The best-case scenario is that teams will open training camp next month — the NHL has set a July 10 date for training camps to open — the 24-team tournament will get underway in two yet-to-be-determined hub cities sometime in August and we will have a Stanley Cup champion by October.
But there are many other scenarios that could sabotage this plan.
According to the NHL, one positive test isn’t one of those scenarios. If a player tests positive, the plan is for him to be quarantined.
Remember it took only one positive test — NBA player Rudy Gobert — to shut down all pro sports in North America. The NHL says it can handle a positive test but, if that happens, there’s no way to know how players, team management or the league itself will react.
And what happens if there is a second or third positive test? Is there a threshold the NHL is willing to accept? The Boston Bruins reported this week one of their players tested positive as the team began small-group training. The unnamed player is the 10th NHLer to test positive for COVID-19 since the league halted play on March 12.
As a player I’d be nervous if a teammate tested positive because I’ve been around locker rooms long enough to know they can serve as incubators for a virus. There has never been a team, or a season, that hasn’t seen several outbreaks of the common flu.
The NHL says it will take every precaution while building a bubble around the competition. There will be endless tests, limited exposure to the outside world and deep cleaning of facilities, but all it takes is one slip up.
And, while the players will be in a bubble during the actual tournament, they will be in a more relaxed atmosphere during training camp when there will be more reliance on individuals being vigilant.
It’s important to note none of the plans is set in stone, which is why players, owners and team officials qualify their statements with words like “if” and “whether.” As the NHL moves from one phase to another, there are ongoing negotiations with the players, who are concerned not only about their safety but also the effect a long playoff run in isolation will have on their families.
Governments also have a say in how this process will play out and they could have a negative effect on the Canadiens and the five other Canadian franchises still in play.
Canada has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for folks coming in from outside the country. That makes it extremely difficult to repatriate players in the U.S. or Europe. Unless there’s some wiggle room, the rule would mean when Habs goalie Carey Price returns from Washington State or winger Tomas Tatar jets in from Slovakia, they would be idle for 14 days.
While there is a ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S., pro athletes have been deemed essential workers. A few states have instituted quarantines, but the concern isn’t the same as it is in Canada, and the NHL will have no trouble finding two U.S. cities to host the tournament.
The Canadiens and the other Canadian teams in the tournament — Edmonton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver — have been exploring the possibility of moving their training camps to the U.S. That would add a month to the time the players will be away from their families and that could create friction. There will also be a push from the players to allow their families to travel to the hub cities.
That quarantine period also stands in the way of a Canadian city being selected as one of the two hubs for the tournament. Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto are among the nine cities on the short list. Alberta Premier Jason Kenny has been actively lobbying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for some flexibility in the quarantine requirement to bolster Edmonton’s bid.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020