NHL News

10 lingering questions about the NHL return-to-play bubbles

My favorite thing about the “return to play” documents released by the NHL and the NHLPA this week — besides the whole “here’s a way to bring hockey back this summer” thing — is the subtle renaming of their “hubs” as the much more heavy metal “Phase 4 Secure Zone,” which sounds like something Katniss Everdeen is trying to break into.

These are extensive, exhaustive documents that cover the vital aspects of the summer restart, such as COVID-19 testing and treatment, limitations on personnel and health guidelines within NHL facilities.

They also deal with the minutiae of “bubble life” for the players. For example, housekeeping in guest rooms “will be provided every third day,” to which my friend and former road roomie Sean Leahy of NBC Sports said, “My god, this is your nightmare.” (Hey, I use a lot of conditioner and need those little bottles restocked.)

Although the documents provided many answers, we still had many questions about life in the NHL “Phase 4 Secure Zone” (insert guitar riff) bubbles. Here are 10 of them:

1. Is this just going to be a giant pool party?

The NHL protocols state that the “hotel pool, if open, is permitted for use by all individuals at the Secure Zone Hotel, so long as individuals can socially distance, both in and out of the pool. Individuals must disinfect lounge chairs before and after each use. The pool may be subject to capacity limits at any given time.”

Keeping in mind that these players have next to nothing to keep themselves occupied for weeks on end, we’re thinking “Top Gun”-style volleyball games, team vs. team chicken fights and cannonball contests. We’re imagining European players rocking Speedos, Edmonton morphing into Antigua and Toronto transforming into Tortuga. And with the hotel spa off-limits, well, it’s entirely possible that we will see some players drop the gloves over spots in the hot tub.

2. Where are the field trips going to be?

When the players aren’t waving around their pool noodles at the hotel, they’ll have the chance to take team outings to designated locations: “Recognizing the importance of mental health and the psychological benefit of variation in activity, social excursions will be arranged both inside and outside the Phase 4 Secure Zone, provided that disinfecting, distancing, use of face coverings and personal hygiene measures can be maintained.”

Obviously, secure golf courses are going to be a destination — Edmonton made that part of its pitch as a hub city. What else is on the docket? Brewery tours? Apple picking? Will they shut down a Dave & Buster’s so players can determine the Stanley Cup champion of Dance Dance Revolution? All we ask is that the Toronto hub throw Dougie Hamilton a bone and schedule at least one trip to the Royal Ontario Museum.



Emily Kaplan reports that the NHL and NHLPA have approved the protocols to return to play, with Toronto and Edmonton serving as the host sites.

3. Would the NHL really take away a team’s draft pick because some fourth-liner decided to go to the club?

The NHL is very serious about the integrity of the bubble, and rightfully so: “Individuals leaving the Phase 4 Secure Zone without permission may be subject to consequences up to and including the removal from the Phase 4, or in other cases, strict quarantines of up to 10-14 days as well as enhanced testing and monitoring upon return.”

Don’t leave the bubble for an unauthorized trip to the club. Got it.

But wait, there’s more: NHL teams that are ineffective chaperones will face “significant penalties, potentially including fines and/or loss of draft choices.”

Would the NHL really strip away a draft pick from a team because its player popped the bubble? Let’s put it this way: We all have our love languages. Gary Bettman loves when teams follow the rules the NHL has set forth, and his love language is ripping away draft choices if teams fail to do so on the most serious matters. In the collective bargaining agreement, teams are threatened with a loss of picks for:

  • Violating the 50-player roster limit as specified in the CBA.

  • Intentionally misreporting hockey-related revenue to the NHL. In that case, a team loses a first-round pick. If it happens a second time, it’s three (!) first-round picks.

If you wanted an indication of how serious the NHL is about keeping the bubble airtight, look no further.

That said, we’d like to meet the player who thinks twice about breaking curfew because his team might be light a fifth-round pick if he gets caught. That’s probably the same mythical creature who would play his heart out for eliminated teams under “The Gold Plan.”

4. Why aren’t coaches required to wear face masks on the bench?

Back on June 18, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported that the NHL wasn’t going to prevent “coaches of a certain age or another at-risk demographic” from doing their jobs during the season restart. At the time, sources indicated that it was “possible coaches will wear a mask behind the bench.”

In the Phase 4 protocols, it’s spelled out explicitly: “Coaches are not required to wear face coverings when on the bench.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “as you get older, your risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases.” Eleven head coaches in the NHL postseason are 55 years old or older. Logic would dictate that you’d want them to mask up at all times. Logic would also dictate that you’d want some kind of barrier between the saliva sprinkler barking out instructions from behind the bench and the roster of players in front of him being drizzled on. And yet, no masks.

5. What will the NHL look like without a dress code?

It has become a customary part of the NHL experience to see the players enter and leave the arena wearing well-tailored suits, the dashing bravura of which is immediately diluted by whatever toque the players wear onto the bus. Although it can’t hold a stitch to the NBA’s couture, we’ve seen the NHL step up with cheeky “Peaky Blinders” suits, P.K. Subban‘s various looks and whatever Auston Matthews is wearing.

But in the Phase 4 Secure Zone, the suits could stay in the closet: “Clubs’ dress codes will not be in effect for the duration of Phase 4, including travel to and from the Hub Cities.”

We’ll miss these earnest attempts at style when players arrive for games in oversized hoodies, cargo shorts and flip-flops, occasionally mixing it up with some Toronto Raptors gear or a Barstool Sports T-shirt — except for Matthews, whom we assume will continue to dress like this:

6. Whither Mario Kart?

One of my favorite Stanley Cup playoffs stories in recent years was how the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights were both using Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64 as an amusing distraction during their Final series.

Pro athletes, hanging out in a hotel room, arguing about who gets to race as Toad. What’s not to love?

Well, COVID-19 has torpedoed that tradition like a red Koopa shell. Players are rooming alone and — by the letter of the law — aren’t allowed to have the boys over for video games: “Each individual staying at the hotel will be required to stay in a single occupancy room, and no individuals shall permit guests or other personnel in their room during Phase 4 (with the exception of housekeeping or engineering staff).”

Obviously, the solution here is to find 24 Nintendo Switches per team so players can play Mario Kart remotely on the same floor. But all it will take is for one player to discover the hypnotically addictive qualities of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” and then nothing will get done before or after games — at least, not until they deliver Blathers enough fossils to fill out his museum. (Have we mentioned how much “Animal Crossing” we’ve played during quarantine?)

7. Will the NHL bubble food look better than the NBA bubble food?

The images of team meals from the NBA bubble make the food at the Fyre Festival look like a meal from Eleven Madison Park:

Among the food options in the NHL bubble is the following: “Modified buffet-style meals will be permitted during Phase 4, subject to plexiglass (or similar) barriers being set up between servers and individuals to maintain social distancing and contactless service,” and will be catered by the hotels.

Hopefully the food is something Instagram-worthy … in an unironic way. The bar is rather low.

8. Did the NHL steal the reunited families idea from reality TV?

One of the biggest concerns for the players in the restarted season was when — or if — they’d see their loved ones during the postseason. A few players told us that they couldn’t conceive of winning the Stanley Cup and not having their families with them to celebrate. That’s a very reasonable concern.

The remedy the two sides agreed on: to have spouses, partners and children join players for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final. Families will go through quarantine and then live in the bubble, with the option of cohabitating with the player.

Let’s be real: This concept is 100 percent stolen from reality TV. Like many of the genre’s tropes, it tracks back to “Survivor,” which debuted the “family visit” 20 years ago in its debut season. A designated “loved one” arrived in Borneo for Episode 11, a.k.a. two episodes prior to the finale. In other words, you get far enough in the game, and your reward is to see your loved ones after being sequestered for weeks. It’s a trope many other reality shows have borrowed, including “Master Chef.”

Considering that the 24-team tournament is going to be the most made-for-TV postseason in NHL history, this tracks. Get the tissues ready for these tearful reunions. Is Jeff Probst available?

9. How many positive tests would shut down the season?

I’ve been asked this question by fans and on radio stations across the continent this week. How many is too many? What’s the threshold?

There isn’t one, at least not formally. I guess it’s like art: They’ll know it when they see it. What we do have in the Phase 4 document is a mechanism for either the NHL or the NHLPA to throw in the towel on the season restart:

“[If] at any time either before the commencement of, or during, play in the Phase 4 Secure Zone, either the NHL or the NHLPA believes that conditions in which the commencement or continuation of play would likely create a material risk to Player health and safety and/or jeopardize the integrity of the competition are imminent or may have emerged, which conditions may include an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 in the Players of one or more Clubs participating in Phase 4, that party shall immediately notify the other of its belief, following which the parties shall jointly consult with the NHL Event Medical Director, the NHLPA Medical Consultant, participating Players, General Managers, and such infectious diseases experts as they may consider advisable.”

What happens then? Bettman (or someone designated by him in the NHL) consults with Don Fehr (or someone designated by him in the NHLPA) on whether to “postpone, delay, move or cancel games” if there is a material risk to players’ health and safety.

There’s also another consideration, to answer perhaps the second-most asked question: What happens if COVID-19 positive tests devastate a team’s roster? The Phase 4 document says that the NHL and the NHLPA can postpone or cancel games if the continuation of those games would “jeopardize the integrity of the competition.”

One last thing: If the NHLPA doesn’t like how Gary Bettman rules on this protest, then the fate of the NHL restart could be put in the hands of an “impartial arbitrator.” And you thought the conjecture over appeals of lengthy suspensions was contentious!

10. Finally, can they pull this off?

I’ve spoken to several epidemiologists over the past few months and have asked them the same question. Their answers were in sync on best practices for pro sports attempting to restart: frequent testing of everyone involved in the games and a bubble around the competition that separates those involved from the general public as well as possible.

The Phase 4 protocol clearly reflects that thinking. It’s a plan that, in theory, could allow for the season to be completed in two cities that currently don’t have the alarming infection rates of some U.S. locations. That is, if all goes well, barring the unforeseen and unanticipated.

But it’s a virus. It spreads despite the best-laid plans. And this is a contact sport that won’t have any face shields or masks around gameplay. This is a “bubble” with hundreds of people, with varying degrees of dedication to health protocols.

In the minds of many fans, “can they pull this off?” remains a secondary consideration to whether they should.

Jersey fouls

From reader Chris C.:

Is this fan saying that Alex Ovechkin is a product of Nicklas Backstrom? That Backstrom is nothing but a number without Ovechkin? Was this a fan who hopped on the bandwagon after the Stanley Cup win? It’s all very odd!

Three things about the Blackhawks

1. The Chicago Blackhawks had to respond to calls for sports teams to rebrand their Native American names and iconography. “Through a genuine and ongoing dialogue we continue to learn about the needs of the native people in our community, display a reverence for their culture and their traditions, and understand the need for constant communication regarding the use and the depiction of native marks,” the team said in a statement …

… wait, sorry, that was their statement in 2013. Just to give you a sense of how long this conversation has been going on.

2. Here’s what the Blackhawks had to say about the current movement to rebrand teams with Native American iconography, via the Sun-Times: “The Chicago Blackhawks name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public.

“We recognize there is a fine line between respect and disrespect, and we commend other teams for their willingness to engage in that conversation. Moving forward, we are committed to raising the bar even higher to expand awareness of Black Hawk and the important contributions of all Native American people. We will continue to serve as stewards of our name and identity and will do so with a commitment to evolve. Our endeavors in this area have been sincere and multifaceted, and the path forward will draw on that experience to grow as an organization and expand our efforts.”

3. I’ve listened to a lot of views on the Blackhawks through the years, seeking out those from the Native American community. Many of them consider this cultural appropriation that has to end.

Scott Powers’ recent piece for The Athletic offered multiple viewpoints on the matter, including this one from Julia Kelly of the Apsaalooke Nation, who used to lump the Blackhawks with Washington’s football team name and the Cleveland Indians’ mascot but no longer does.

“If you look at the Blackhawks’ games from 10 years to where you had people in the stands wearing costumes — which is what it is, costumes — and how offensive that is, to now, I am happy,” she said. “Because that means the relationship between the Blackhawks team and the Native American community, there’s an understanding and putting it out to the fans that this is offensive.”

I think we can agree that white hockey fans wearing headdresses to games is something that should no longer happen. Chicago’s name and logo are thornier issues. It’s important to respect the voices that believe that any use of Native American imagery is dehumanizing and disrespectful. It’s also important to hear voices such as that of Joe Podlasek, former head of the American Indian Center, who doesn’t think that’s the case.

(Podlasek, for the record, helped get the University of Illinois to drop Chief Illiniwek.)

“My goal is not to remove all Native images but for those that are respectful to put an educational process behind them and share opportunities” he told ESPN in 2014, views he reiterated to The Athletic recently. “Without that piece, nothing will change in the long run, and history will repeat itself in generations to come.”

The cut-and-dried Washington NFL team issue, this is not. But as we’ve seen in D.C., some major sponsors demanding change can help a movement pick up momentum.

Listen to “ESPN On Ice”

We have a tremendous podcast this week, with plenty of return to play and CBA analysis, as well as special guests Bill (Billy?) Guerin, GM of the Minnesota Wild, and Rick Westhead, the TSN investigative reporter who updates us on the Canadian junior hockey hazing lawsuit and much more. Listen, rate and subscribe here!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Tom Fitzgerald

In some ways, Tom Fitzgerald was fortunate to have succeeded Ray Shero as Devils GM on an interim basis. The bar was low, and he cleared it with some shrewd moves around the trade deadline. He knows the organization well as it transitions into yet another rebuild. But at the same time, he was the right-hand man for a failed regime. According to Kevin Weekes of NHL Network, Fitz will take over the job officially. There are only 32 of those jobs in the NHL. He played his hand correctly to earn one of them.

Losers: Those expecting Gallant or Laviolette in NJ

The Devils’ coaching search led them to interview Gerard Gallant and Peter Laviolette, two of the most successful coaches in the NHL in recent years. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right for the organization. Perhaps the money wasn’t right, as we hear in Laviolette’s case. Perhaps the fit wasn’t right, as we hear for Gallant, who wants to run his entire show but wouldn’t have been able to, given New Jersey’s hockey operations structure. Weekes reported that Lindy Ruff, former Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars head coach, will take over the Devils. To the surprise of absolutely no one in this nepotism-drenched league, Fitzgerald played for Ruff when he was an assistant with the Florida Panthers. This feels like the low-cost placeholder gig that Alain Nasreddine should have gotten. But I’d be more than happy to be wrong about Ruff.

Winner: All-day hockey

As Emily Kaplan reported this week, the NHL will play games at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time in the Toronto and Edmonton hubs. We’ve long argued that the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs should be like the first day of March Madness. Little did we know that the entire first round would be that way one day.

Losers: Cellys

Full-on goal celebrations in a global pandemic are going to be challenging, and teams are already working on their socially distanced exhibitions, such as the Washington Capitals doing an “NHL 94” tribute above. The Minnesota Wild are also working on “inside the bubble” celebrations. Carolina Hurricanes … we’re counting on you to change the game again.

Winner: Cold-weather Stanley Cup

Look, we complain enough about the Stanley Cup being awarded in the middle of June that having it potentially awarded at the beginning of October — which is the tentative plan for the last day of the Final under the proposed calendar — is a salve for our frigid hearts.

Loser: The offseason

That same proposed calendar lists Dec. 1 as the beginning of the 2020-21 season, with training camps set for Nov. 17. There’s nothing like spending your day with the Stanley Cup after Training Session B at your team’s practice rink.

Puck headlines

Here’s a good piece by Travis Yost of TSN on the lack of home-ice advantage in the “bubble” and how it could impact things such as officiating.

Dominic Garcia, alternate captain and the only Black player on Arizona State University’s hockey team, opens up about racial abuse.

Outgoing IIHF chief Rene Fasel told The Associated Press that he doesn’t foresee any major stumbling blocks that could derail negotiations leading up to the 2022 Beijing Games — other than, you know, the IOC.

Hoo boy, are the Blackhawks looking at a salary-cap headache again.

Examining the murky picture for college hockey during COVID-19: “Sports is the last thing that will return to normal. Too many moving parts, too much travel, too much close contact. And even if you think there’s some overreaction, it doesn’t matter. Schools are not going to want to be the ones that cause a problem.”

The most hated team in the NHL? Hint: The one that has Sidney Crosby.

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

We agree with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston: Labor peace is a weird look for the NHL but a good one.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

It isn’t hockey, but give this really terrific, insightful and well-structured story on the weight challenges for retired NFL offensive linemen a read. Emily is quite the storyteller!

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