If all goes according to plan, and that’s a big if, the Nashville Predators will be playing playoff hockey in less than a month.
On Monday, the NHL and NHLPA announced a tentative agreement on Phases 3 and 4 of the league’s Return to Play Plan. The target date for Phase 3 (a.k.a. the start of training camps) is July 13th, one week from today. If all goes well, teams will be allowed to travel to their respective hub cities. Phase 4, the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs play-in round, is slated to begin on August 1st.
When that happens, the Predators will take on the Arizona Coyotes in a best-of-five series. The winner moves on to compete in the more traditional four-round, best-of-seven run to the Stanley Cup. The loser will instead have a one-in-eight shot at drafting Alexis Lafrenière, considered by many to be one of the best forward prospects to enter the draft in years. I will continue to report facts, and will let you — the loyal reader — decide which of those scenarios you would prefer as a Predators fan.
Naturally, the plan includes several protocols to help protect players, coaches, officials, and their families against COVID-19. You can find the full documents for Phase 3 and Phase 4 here. But if you’re short on time, here’s the gist.
- Training camp rosters will include no more than 30 skaters, plus an “unlimited” number of goalies.
- All players, coaches, front office personnel, and any employe at the team facility will be tested every other day (including 48 hours before their return to the facility). Results of each test have to be made available within 24 hours. Any player who doesn’t receive their test results in 24 hours won’t be allowed to train until they receive those results.
- Phase 3 will be a “typical” training camp environment. All players can be on the ice at once, and they can interact with coaches and front-office staff as normal.
- For Phase 4 (the actually-playing-hockey phase), players will be housed in “secure zones,” which include the team hotel, training facilities, the arena, and restaurants.
- Teams will be allowed to bring 52 people total, including a max of 31 players (skaters and goalies), to the hub cities. All of these people will be tested daily for COVID-19.
- Any player, coach, team official, etc. who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will have to pass two positive tests before they will be allowed to return to team activities.
There are a couple of other interesting points buried in the protocols as well. One, of course, is that players will be able to opt out of playing altogether. If that’s the case, they’ll have to notify their teams by no later than 4 P.M. CST tomorrow.
The other note, as pointed out by Bob McKenzie, could make things more interesting.
...shall be deemed to be unfit to play and shall not be permitted to participate in either Phase 3 or Phase 4. A player may initiate a second opinion concerning his fitness to play status pursuant to Paragraph 5 of the Standard Player Contract.”— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) July 6, 2020
Team doctors taking players off the team due to being “high risk” of contracting COVID-19 could be a game-changer for some teams. For instance, Montreal’s Max Domi, the Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko, and Minnesota’s Luke Kunin are all diabetic. The CDC has stated that people with diabetes could have a higher risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19. All are key players for their teams, and if any of them are kept from playing due to safety concerns, it could certainly make an impact on the playoff series.
The bottom line, however, IS safety. While the announced start date will certainly give fans something to look forward to, and the protocols put in place by the league look good on paper, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. States across the United States, including Tennessee, are announcing record spikes in positive tests almost daily, and the death toll nationwide is up to more than 130,000.
Navigating a safe return for more than 1,200 employees will be no easy task for the NHL, and many of the Return to Play protocols have, so far, been based on the “best-case scenario.” There’s still no hint from anyone — league official, reporter, or otherwise — what the contingency plan would be if these protocols simply don’t work, or if the state of COVID-19 in North America simply becomes unmanageable.
Until then, all we can do is social distance, wear a mask, and do our part to help get hockey back on track.