NHL restart plans intensify with player health concerns at forefront

The NHL and NHLPA are intensifying communications as the league moves forward crafting plans to reopen the season if it is safe to do so.

Slap Shots has learned a Return to Play Committee established by the league and the union has conducted a pair of conference calls over the past three days with regularly scheduled “meetings” to follow.

Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, and senior VPs Colin Campbell and Steve Hatze Petros represent the NHL, while the NHLPA is represented by Don Fehr, Mathieu Schneider, general counsel Don Zavelo, divisional rep Steve Webb, and active players John Tavares, Connor McDavid, James van Riemsdyk and Ron Hainsey. Medical advisers from both the league and union are added to the calls when appropriate.

We’re told the discussions thus far have not honed in on details as much as concepts. But the details will determine not only whether the NHL can develop a pragmatic plan in the midst of a pandemic, but whether the players will agree to it.

The NHL’s credibility will be on the line if play resumes, for it won’t only be the players putting their trust in the league, but the public, as well. A shutdown following a restart would likely be more damaging to the sport than outright cancellation of the remainder of 2019-20.

So would a scenario under which multiple players would have to be replaced by AHL call-ups from expanded 30-man rosters after testing positive. If the NHL is going to do this, it’s going to have to present a credible product.

Friday night, deputy commissioner Daly told TSN’s Ryan Rishaug, “Everything depends on the facts and entire set of circumstances, but no, we do not believe that one positive test, or even multiple positive tests [would] necessarily shut the whole thing down.”

Following that, Daly told Slap Shots in an email exchange, “Of course people who test positive would be immediately removed from the mix.”

Asked if he could clarify his statements in the interview, Daly said, “Everything depends on precise circumstances. I’m not about to go through a million fact patterns that are different and completely hypothetical.

“I’m fully comfortable with our level of knowledge and the experts we have retained to make the right decisions.”

Ultimately, decisions will be made by local governing bodies and public health agencies. For instance, the league had explored Calgary and Edmonton as potential centralized host sites under its four-arena plan, but on Thursday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health reiterated that gatherings of 15 or more people would be prohibited until at least September.

According to sources, Toronto and Columbus are leading contenders to become two of the host cities. We’re told the plan would be for all teams to hold their training camps of up to three weeks at their assigned centralized locations.

This means players on clubs that advance deep into the playoffs following the planned hypothetical completion of the regular season would be segregated from society — and, more to the point, their families — for nearly four months.

Though the league would like to divide the quadrants into divisions, that may not be possible if geography is taken into account. For instance, if Toronto hosts the Atlantic Division, that would be relatively convenient for the Leafs, Senators, Canadiens, Bruins, Red Wings and Sabres, but not at all for the Lightning and Panthers. If a southern city is chosen as a host site, the Florida teams might be assigned to that location.

But that is secondary, as is the fact much of the league’s interest in setting up shop in Canada is based on the currency conversion rate under which the Canadian dollar is now at 71 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. Costs matter.

At least as of Saturday, the league — whose chief medical officer, Dr. Winne Meeuwisse, has a PhD in clinical epidemiology — and union had not addressed myriad issues. One of the most critical regards the risk players with underlying medical conditions might confront under a reopening scenario.

Kaapo Kakko, for example, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and celiac five or six years ago. Montreal’s Max Domi and Minnesota’s Luke Kunin have also been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, those individuals with Type 1 diabetes are not necessarily more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 but are likely to face worse outcomes.

Brian Boyle, of course, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2017. He has been in full remission since October 2018 but may face a higher risk than the general playing population. There are other players with auto-immune issues. This is a topic on the PA’s list that must be addressed.

Testing will be an issue. How will tests be administered to every team’s traveling party of up to 60 people per, how often will tests be conducted, and how long will it take to get results? The underlying question, of course, is how is the NHL procuring not only enough testing kits, but swabs, reagents and necessary labs?

Those questions have yet to be answered.

The “day-in-the-life” itinerary under which players would be quarantined has yet been presented to the union. The idea is to keep the circle as tight as possible, but that would mean everyone associated with the effort — players, staff, on-ice officials, off-ice officials, NHL staff, arena laborers, bus drivers, food preparers, wait staff, et al — would be quarantined in a hotel for weeks on end, leaving only to head to the rink.

What about players/personnel whose significant others give birth? What about players/personnel who have weddings scheduled for the summer? What if a family member falls ill? What about Europeans returning from their respective home countries? What about existing travel restrictions? What about the many topics I’m sure I haven’t considered?

These are all topics on the agenda for the Return to Play Committee.

Reopening the league will be a massive task. Every “i” must be dotted, every “t” must be crossed. For if the NHL reopens, this will be one time when hockey will be a life and death proposition.