Matchups are set, rinks have opened, and players are skating again.
But as much as it looks like the NHL is barreling toward a return later this summer, there’s still plenty that needs to be addressed before the puck can drop.
Next week could be vital to getting those answers.
The NHL has circled July 10 for the start of training camps, a target that gives the league and the NHL Players’ Association less than three weeks to finalize and approve the protocols for camp and the subsequent season.
While the two sides already signed off on the format for finishing 2019-20 — a 24-team pursuit of the Stanley Cup that will start with a play-in round involving the Wild — figuring out how to execute this plan always figured to be more complicated.
Not only does the league need to hash out cleaning and testing policies to ensure safe competition, but it also has to determine accommodations, such as hotels and food, for players away from the rink. Who comes in contact with players is also likely to be a hot-button issue since some, such as the Wild’s Devan Dubnyk, have spoken out against being isolated from their families during this time. Naming two hub cities to host the action is also on the league’s to-do list.
A return-to-play committee that includes some of the NHL’s most prominent players has been collaborating with the league, and team player reps for the NHLPA have also been involved in the process.
What could make the upcoming days more urgent for all parties is preserving July 10 as a viable start date for teams to officially reconvene.
For that to happen, an agreement needs to be in place and it would need to be OK’d well in advance of July 10 to allow players enough time to travel back to their NHL cities. Last month, Commissioner Gary Bettman said 17% of NHLers were outside of North America.
Others haven’t left the continent but are out of state. Wild defenseman Matt Dumba has been in Calgary with family and said his return to Minnesota would depend on when training camp begins.
“I’m working out and skating here, as well,” Dumba said recently. “… We’ll see what happens with the NHL schedule.”
A sooner-than-later resolution would also give clarity to the NHL’s calendar, which normally resets July 1 after contracts expire and free agency begins. Clearly, contracts would have to be adjusted; getting that squared away before they technically expire could avoid future confusion.
Logistical issues, however, aren’t the only obstacles standing in the way of an NHL relaunch.
So is what shut it down in the first place: the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced it had to close its facility to players who were participating in voluntary workouts after three players and additional staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The Toronto Sun also reported Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who has been staying in Arizona, tested positive in addition to a number of unidentified Coyotes players.
Earlier, a Boston player and an Arizona staff member tested positive after the NHL permitted teams to allow players back in their facilities to train in small groups. Ottawa and Colorado have reported multiple cases among players since the NHL paused the season March 12 while Pittsburgh has had one.
The NHL issued a statement Friday noting that of the more than 200 players to have been tested since June 8, 11 have tested positive. Although the league has acknowledged that an outbreak would affect its ability to play, it hasn’t felt a positive test or isolated cases would pull the plug on the season once it’s back up and running and players are being tested daily.
Still, it’s unclear what affect these more recent cases could have on the NHL’s plans and if they could delay the next steps — especially with cases surging in Florida and Arizona.
The Wild has not yet opened its practice rink for players to work out, but the ice has been installed at Tria Rink. Some players have started to skate on their own locally, including Luke Kunin, who said he has been getting on the ice with Zach Parise, Eric Staal and Jordan Greenway. The Wild is set to face Vancouver in a best-of-five during the qualifying round.
“First couple times getting out there it was a little difficult obviously to get back into it,” Kunin said this week. “But now feeling a lot better and just feeling more and more like myself, kind of like you would in a summer training looking forward to getting to training camp. It’s been fun to really get back out and get grinding again.”
Kunin was traveling to St. Louis on Friday to visit family and planned to continue to skate there.
“I’m preparing and doing all the things as if we’re coming back and playing in the playoffs,” he said. “… I want to play some more hockey. I really liked what our team was doing. I guess we’ll see what happens.”