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Hockey, risks and asterisks: The NHL’s road to a return was paved with good intentions

Integrity. It’s the word that came up over and over on Saturday as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman touted the league’s return to play, the completion of the 2019-20 season and the idea of crowning a Stanley Cup champion in the oddest of ways, in the weirdest of circumstances.

“The integrity of the return-to-play system was paramount in everybody’s mind,” Bettman said on a conference call.

The league, of course, paused operations on March 12, when it felt like the entire world was coming to a standstill with the coronavirus seemingly out of control in Italy and Spain and ramping up in North America.

That’s when Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, players’ association boss Donald Fehr and his special assistant, Mathieu Schneider, went to work on a return protocol twinned with an extension to the collective agreement.

“It was a recognition by both sides that we were being confronted with an incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation,” said Bettman. “We needed to work together to solve the myriad problems that would be in front of us, that required us to focus on return to play, to focus on transitional rules, to focus on protocols, and to focus on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement that would give us labour peace for an extended period, which turns out to be the next six years.”

The extension keeps a salary cap in place (important to Bettman and the owners) while allowing teams to retain their core rosters (important to fans) and guaranteeing players will get paid through the pandemic (important to players). It was no small achievement, especially considering the public battle that Major League Baseball went through before finally opening training camps in home cities.

The NHL ultimately ended the regular season and devised a way to return with expanded playoffs:

  • Put 12 teams in Toronto, starting July 26, and 12 more in Edmonton — cities where the rate of infection is now low.

  • Strictly limit what they can and can’t do, and test them daily.
  • Hope COVID-19 doesn’t get in the way before a champion is determined in early October.

So, now fans have more than the virus to consider. For one, should this season come with an asterisk?

Maybe, given the circumstances that have led to summertime hockey, but the argument against is stronger.

For one thing, there are now officially five rounds to the playoffs instead of four. The champion might have to win 19 games, not the usual 16. First, there’s the best-of-five qualifying round for teams seeded fifth through 12th in each conference, while the top four play a three-game round robin for seeding. Then the usual four rounds of best-of-seven.

The league offered to make the first two rounds best-of-five, to shorten the time required in the restrictive bubbles. The players pushed back. Why? Integrity.

“It was the players who said, ‘No, we want best-of-seven because when the Stanley Cup champion is ultimately crowned, we want it to be on the same basis as the other (modern-era) Stanley Cups,” said Bettman.

Added Schneider: “Players were against it for the very reason of keeping the integrity, and not wanting an asterisk in any shape or form by the Stanley Cup winner in this year.”

That said, it’s not like other years in many other ways:

  • COVID testing, daily for players, and the wait for results will hang over every game, every practice.
  • Not everyone had equal access to ice time with players scattered around the world.

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  • Teams that might have gone into the playoffs hamstrung by injuries will see players return healthy, the Leafs (Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev) among them.

  • Players can opt out with no penalty or discipline. Calgary’s Travis Hamonic already has, citing family health reasons.
  • And after a long layoff, games that matter will start in a hurry.

“The only thing we have to compare it to — the intensity coming out of the gate — would be a World Cup, where we start right at the beginning of the season with extremely intense games,” said Schneider. “It’s maybe that kind of atmosphere for the guys, and we’re trying to take all necessary steps to make sure guys have everything they need to prepare for the games and stay healthy.”

If all goes according to plan, the Stanley Cup champion will be decided no later than Oct. 2, with free agency kicking off exactly seven days after. But can the league pull it off without a hitch?

In Europe, professional soccer in England and Germany seems to be doing OK. But in North America, Major League Soccer has already seen two teams withdraw from its Floria tournament because of positive tests.

Bettman was asked what the NHL would do if a team or two had to withdraw. He didn’t have a direct answer.

“The fact is, we’re going to be taking advice from the experts, the medical people in terms of what is and isn’t appropriate, as we move forward on understanding that COVID-19 is out there and what the risks are,” said Bettman.

“One positive test shouldn’t shut down the tournament, but obviously we have to be very cognizant of player health and safety and if we have an outbreak situation,” added Daly. “There’s no hard and fast number. We’ll take our lead from the medical professionals.”

The league acknowledged it settled on Toronto and Edmonton, abandoning Las Vegas, because of the number of COVID-19 cases. And with thorough protocols in place, including testing and limiting player movement from training camps to the completion of the Cup final, the league believes it has a recipe for success that others can copy.

“What we’re about to do is what every business and public institution is going to have to do over the next weeks and months as they reopen,” said Fehr. “This is not going to be: We’re going to do this in hockey, or we’re going to do this in sports, and everybody else is either going to stay closed forever or have some other magical procedure to follow.

“To the extent that we can help develop things that could be helpful elsewhere, that’s great.”

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