The NHL's coronavirus pause: Players, coaches offer opinions on return-to-play format

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, June 1, 2020

It has been 81 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continue, there also have been continuous nuggets of new information regarding the potential resumption of the season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all affects 2020-21.

As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every week, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL's relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week's update. Get caught up on it all here:

What have players and coaches been saying about the 'return to play' format?

Greg Wyshynski: The 24-team, conference-based "return to play" format that was approved by the NHL and the NHLPA last week is being treated by some as a necessary evil and by others as the best the two sides could create in a season truncated by a global pandemic.

"I don't think it was anyone's first choice. I think the first choice was that we finish the regular season," said Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher, whose team went from being outside the playoff race to the 12th seed in the East under the approved format. "But this was really the only opportunity that works for the league and the players, in the sense of giving everyone that opportunity and not taking it away from teams with 10 or 14 games left to go. Giving everyone in that mix a chance, and then giving teams like ourselves a second life."

Gallagher's teammate Paul Byron, the Canadiens' NHLPA player rep, said he was "actually surprised it passed 29-2" when the NHLPA voted on it, expecting more than two teams to have objected. One of the teams that voted against the format was the Carolina Hurricanes.

"I think the bigger issue, especially for our guys, was what were the 68 games we played for? What did we grind for? The bulk of the season was completed, and they just threw that out," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour told ESPN. "Why not carry the points over that you had? I think that the thought was if you're playing in five, six, seven games, we could easily have all had the same amount of games, figured that out. That would've been your play-in, and then take your points with you and see how you end up. But we understand. Nobody really cares. At the end of the day, they want to see hockey. We want to get back to playing. Is it the best way to do it? Probably not, in my opinion."

Weighing regular-season achievement in a season restart format was something the "return to play" committee debated, according to Edmonton Oilers star and task force member Connor McDavid.

"That was a huge issue in putting the format together. Who deserves to be in, who deserves a handicap or something like that. But we've beaten this thing to death. To handicap those teams in a way ... maybe it's not the most fair way, but the integrity of the Stanley Cup playoffs is still going to be intact," he said. "Let's say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and goes on to win the Stanley Cup. I think they're a very deserving team if they're going to win five rounds. There's never going to be a perfect format, but this one checked off multiple boxes."

But there are still boxes to be checked in the postseason format. Like, for example, whether the two rounds preceding the conference final will also be five-game series like the qualification round. The NHL has currently designed those rounds to be best-of-five series, followed by best-of-seven series in the conference championships and finals, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly said talks are ongoing with the players about making one or both of the first two rounds seven-game series.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and NHLPA rep Kris Letang said the players want seven-game series in the round of 16.

"One thing that comes up often is that everybody is used to a best of seven. You know how it feels when you lose the first two or you win the first two. I think it's an easier thing to put on a best of seven, because everybody knows what to expect," he said.

One aspect of the return-to-play plan that the players see as a necessary evil is competing inside empty arenas. In a perfect world, the Stanley Cup playoffs are contested in front of raucous crowds that give teams a home-ice advantage in critical games. But restarting in a global pandemic is far from perfect, which means playoff games with no fans.

"It sucks, frankly. But we gotta do what we gotta do to play hockey," said McDavid.

Jordan Staal of the Hurricanes agreed. "You've seen over the years in Carolina that when the team gets into the playoffs, we usually make a push. That goes to show what our fans can do," said Staal. "We have an extra advantage here in Raleigh. But it's just part of it. There's not much else you can do. We're going to have to find a way to motivate ourselves."

While some of the NHL's teams and players reacted to the inequities of the season restart format, New York Rangers coach David Quinn painted a larger picture.

"I think we all have to be very careful when we are talking about fair," he said, "because when I think about fair right now, I think about the 100,000 people that have lost their lives and the loved ones that have been affected by it. I think about the first responders who have been exposed to this terrible disease mentally and physically. I think about the 30-40 million people that have filed for unemployment. I think about the small and big business that have been shut down. I think about the seniors that are in high school and college that will never experience one of life's great moments. So I think we all have to be very sensitive to the word 'fair.' We have been very fortunate that we continue to play a game that we love and coach a game that we love. I understand fairness in the small context of our sport, but I think we all have to keep the word 'fair' in perspective."

Now that the format has been settled, what are the players' biggest concerns?

Wyshynski: Their concerns boil down to two main topics: safety and family.

"We were trying to get the format in place first. But those are questions we're now going to need answers to," said McDavid. "Safety of the players and everyone involved is paramount. That's the main issue that's gotta get solved right now. It has to get answered before we can move forward."

Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat acknowledged that NHL players are accustomed to playing through illness and injury, but COVID-19 is a different story.

"You want to be in every single game. You want to be a difference-maker," he said. "Before, you played through colds, played through injuries. But it's a different animal, this virus. You have to be cautious of yourself, but also the people around you."

Byron said that the process to determine safety protocols is the reason the players approved a return to play format but have yet to approve an actual return to the ice this summer.

"There are so many protocols that have to go in place," he said. "If one guy tests positive, I see it as unlikely that other guys don't test positive, but if they're testing everybody, I have to believe that they'll probably find it. What would happen if half your team or four or five or six guys test positive at one time? I don't know.

"It's concerning for sure. The doctors, when you do the research on COVID, it's very contagious. How bad are the symptoms? How bad will it be? No one really knows. We're young. We're healthy. They say even if we get it, we'll be fine. But it just takes one case to go south, to change life for anybody. This is what the union and the league are looking into, to make sure we're taken care of."

That includes Letang, the Penguins star who suffered a stroke in 2014. He was concerned about returning to play because of his medical history.

"I had my fair share of questions, and they've all been answered. Certainly, I can say I would be safe to play," he said. "The safety of the players, the safety of the people that will be traveling and be part of the group that goes there. That's the No. 1 thing. The families, too. It's not a road trip for several days. Guys are going to be away from their family and their kids for an extended period of time."

The ability to spend time with family during the postseason is something of great concern to the players.

"It's going to be difficult. How long we're away for, no one knows for sure yet. Could be a month. Could be two months," Byron said. "My kids have become accustomed to me being around 24/7. They have a certain level of attachment. It's going to be difficult. At the same time, we're hockey players. Unfortunately, it's part of our job [to be away]. Through technology, you find a way to connect to your family when you're not there."

But technology isn't the solution that Horvat is looking for this summer. His wife, Holly, is due to deliver their first child in July.

"I've been thinking about that pretty much every day," he said. "It's definitely not easy, but I'm not the only one in this kind of situation. Everybody's got a thing to worry about. But we're going to have to make the most of it when the time comes. We haven't made any decisions. We're going to see how this thing plays out. Hoping for the best."

Hoping for the best is a good way to describe the players' mindset as they enter this difficult phase of planning with the league.

"If we do come back and play, we're going to have to put a lot of trust in the NHL to keep us safe and healthy,"said Gallagher. "That's a major, major step to take. Obviously, you go through the amount of players in our union, there are going to be players with those fears. They have to be made comfortable to come back. I don't think there have ever been negotiations between the two sides that have gone perfectly."

The NHL, meanwhile, says its commitment to the players from the start of the process is to "do everything within our power, and consistent with medical knowledge, to keep everyone as safe as they can be," according to Daly, via TSN 1260. "We want to return to the ice. But we're not returning to the ice if we're putting people at significant risk."

What kind of quarantine rules will the players, coaches, staff (and their families) have upon arrival at the hub cities?

Emily Kaplan: This is something we still don't know. As NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr reiterated to us this past week shortly after commissioner Gary Bettman laid out the plans,pretty much everything from this point forwardwill need to be negotiated by the players.

Will players be allowed to bring family members with them to hub cities? That's something the players want but will have to negotiate with the league. (Fehr told ESPN he thinks it's "very unlikely" players will have to be separated from their families for an extended period of time.)

Will players be given some sense of normalcy or freedom, or will they simply be shuttling from hotel to rink, hotel to rink? Again, this is something that needs to be negotiated.

To get a sense of what the players are thinking on this, here's what John Tavares, a voice on the NHL/NHLPA's return-to-play committee, said this past week: "When you're in [the bubble] for an extended period of time, you obviously want to feel as comfortable as a person. I think the mental side of it, the mental health side of it to make sure that we feel we're not just kind of in our hotel rooms and going to the rink, that there's going to be really good structure in place so we can feel like ourselves and be ourselves."

And then there are the health and safety protocols at the arena: what social distancing might look like in the locker room, and what in-game adjustments will need to be made. We can look at the Phase 2 protocols for parameters -- and the NHL's lengthy document for Phase 2 covers plenty, including instructions for players to shower at home, mandates that all towels become single-use and for no water bottles to be communal -- but this will all be negotiated again for actual games.

When will training camps get started?

Kaplan: The NHL still hasn't put firm dates on anything. As Bettman explained Tuesday: "There's a reason that we're not giving you dates now, because anybody who gives you a date is guessing, and we think we'd rather take a more holistic approach to doing this."

But we do know players won't be told to report to training camp before July, and I've been told it won't be until at least July 10.

"I think realistically if we're in training camp mid-July, that would be a good thing, and if we can be playing by the end of July or the beginning of August, that would be a good thing, too," Bettman said Tuesday. "But if it has to slide more, then it'll slide."

Training camp is believed to be roughly three weeks, though that is something the NHL and NHLPA have to negotiate, and Bettman said he will seek input from the players.

How is the NHL handling Canada's mandatory 14-day quarantine period for those traveling across the border?

Kaplan: It's definitely an issue, and if Canada doesn't ease its restrictions in the next two to three weeks, the NHL will almost certainly rule out a Canadian city from being one of its two hubs when it resumes play. (The NHL ideally would like to pick at least one Canadian city for several reasons, one of which is that it's simply cheaper to stage games there.)

Daly said the NHL has "reached an understanding with the Canadian government that players can cross the Canadian border as well both internationally from overseas but also from the United States so they can return to their home city without [a] problem." However, regarding the federal quarantine, Daly said: "We don't have a resolution there, but it's an ongoing dialogue, for sure."

Many American-born players on Canadian teams -- Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who is back home in Arizona, is a good example -- likely won't return for the voluntary workouts because of this; it's best to stay put where they are.

Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said on Wednesday his team is considering moving its training camp to the U.S. to circumvent any issues. "It's something that we're thinking about, but also, too, we just want to give it a few more days just to see if something is going to change,'' Benning said. "The perfect scenario [is] we'd like to use our facilities. We're probably going to have 30, 32 guys here, and we have great facilities for our players, so we would like to do that first and foremost. But we've talked about moving it off-site.''

The Canucks are one of six Canadian teams in the 24-team format, and the other franchises might consider doing the same.

Has the NHL clarified anything about whether the qualification round is a playoff round or not? Like when it comes to conditional picks?

Wyshynski: The qualification round both is and is not a playoff round for the players and their stats. Allow me to explain.

It is a playoff round when it comes to overall player stats. In announcing the return-to-play format, Bettman said the regular season was over as of March 11's games. The NHL told ESPN that stats from the qualification and round-robin games will be counted as part of the playoff totals for players, rather than as an extension of the regular season or another category. Hence, we got the news that the stat-based regular-season awards for 2019-20 have been decided, with Leon Draisaitl taking home the Art Ross Trophy for most points, Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak tying for the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals), and the Boston Bruins winning the Presidents' Trophy for most standings points, as well as their goalie tandemearning the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals.

But the qualification round is not a playoff round for the purposes of determining conditional draft picks. As first reported by The Athletic, the NHL sent a memo to teams that stated: "For trade condition purposes, a club will not be deemed to have qualified for the playoffs unless or until they have progressed into the Round of 16, and 'Playoff games/rounds' will only include the games/rounds played in the Round of 16 or later. We believe this interpretation will best reflect the intentions of the parties at the time of the trade."

Take the Vancouver Canucks' first-round pick. The New Jersey Devils own the rights to it, as it went from the Canucks to the Lightning in the J.T. Miller trade, and then to the Devils in the Blake Coleman deal. If the Canucks do not make the playoffs in 2019-20, the first-round pick will transfer to a 2021 first-rounder. As of now, despite being in a playoff spot via points percentage and being seeded seventh in the Western Conference, the Canucks have yet to "make the playoffs." They'll have to beat the Minnesota Wild in a best of five to be a playoff team.

Which brings us to a rather confusing part of this definition of the qualification round. The Devils also hold the rights to Carolina's fourth-round pick this season in the Sami Vatanen trade. According to Cap Friendly, it upgrades to a third-rounder if Carolina makes the playoffs and Vatanen plays in 70% of its playoff games. Carolina hasn't made the playoffs yet; and if Vatanen plays in the qualification round, those games would not count toward his total playoff games as a Hurricane this season, but they would be added to his personal postseason stat totals.

Everybody got that?

The NHL and the NHLPA are still figuring out some of the other implications for qualifying round stats for players, including player performance bonuses and transition rules.

How different might games look on TV?

Kaplan: This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the NHL resumption plan. Since there won't be fans in the arena (and maybe not some members of the media, either), the NHL will rely heavily on its TV production and is thinking more ambitiously than perhaps ever before. The NHL, after all, is best as a live-game experience -- nothing beats the energy of being in a rink -- and hockey doesn't pop on TV quite like the NFL does.

That might change. Steve Mayer, the NHL's chief content officer, gave some hints as to what we can expect in an appearance on the league's in-house podcast, The Rink, this week. Get ready for miked-up players and intimate camera angles! (It's unclear whether F-bombs and other profanity will be censored.)

"You're going to see, no question, cameras put in places that we could never put them before," Mayer said. "All of the things that we've always wanted to do, yeah we're going to give them a try. I think audio is a huge piece of how we're going to approach the next world. You want to hear the sounds of the NHL. You want to hear the players. You want to mike them up, and here we can. And I do think we have a huge advantage over other sports when it comes to constant noise, especially in play. I think camera-wise, everything just coming down lower, showing the speed of the game. I do think you'll see some experimental cameras, things we haven't done before that we'll certainly give a try."

Any more developments on the testing plan front?

Wyshynski:Daly said that testing players frequently was the "linchpin" for finding a path toward a return to play.

"We will have a rigorous daily testing protocol where players are tested every evening and those results are obtained before they would leave their hotel rooms the next morning, so we'll know if we have a positive test and whether the player has to self-quarantine himself as a result of that positive test," Daly told The Associated Press. "It's expensive, but we think it's really a foundational element of what we're trying to accomplish."

And, as always, what's your latest pop culture addiction this week?

Kaplan: I've started watching "The Americans" -- thanks to so many of you who reached out with encouragement that it's a worthwhile investment. I really like it so far, but I'm only five episodes in. Since we did Disney's "Miracle" for our Viewers Club rewatch recently, it's been pretty funny to watch Noah Emmerich go from Herb Brooks' mild-mannered sidekick as an assistant coach for the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to a pretty savvy FBI agent working his Russian asset (even though he's still a little clueless emotionally). I thought this was a terrific op-ed from Masai Ujiri in The Globe and Mail. Also a PSA that every episode of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" is on HBO Max.

Wyshynski: Like many, I've had a difficult time pulling away from news and social media in the past few days. I've done a lot of reading, much more listening, and as much signal boosting and support as I can muster, even though I know it's ultimately insufficient. But we did carve out some time to watch the finale of "Defending Jacob" on Apple TV+, in which Chris Evans plays a father whose son is charged with murdering a classmate. And after several episodes of family drama and crime procedural ... hoo boy, we did not expect the absolutely wild turns the finale takes to wrap it up. It's not exactly high art -- no matter what show Michelle Dockery apparently thought she was acting in -- but it was enthralling.

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