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A possible roadmap for the NHL to follow for a return to play

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A look at how and when the NHL might be able to take next steps towards returning

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Today marks 50 days without sports in America, a pause brought forward due to the response to the coronavirus. Officially NHL players have been told to self-quarantine and wait it out. Since then, no one has really known when that will end. The NHL and NHLPA have released a statement that says that status quo is pretty much still the case.

Despite numerous reports and speculation over the last several days, the NHL and the NHLPA have not made any decisions or set a timeline for possible return to play scenarios.

Given recent developments in some NHL Clubs’ local communities, we are now looking ahead to a Phase 2 of the transition period that would follow the currently recommended Phase 1 period of “self-quarantine” by Players and Hockey Staff.

The precise date of transition to Phase 2, during which Players might return to small group activities in NHL Club training facilities, remains undetermined. However, provided that conditions continue to trend favorably – and, subject to potential competitive concerns as between disparately situated markets – we believe we may be able to move to Phase 2 at some point in the mid-to-later portion of May. Specific guidelines governing Player and Hockey Staff activity would be provided at that time. In the meantime, we expect Players and Hockey Staff to continue to adhere to the recommended guidelines put in place when the season was paused on March 12.

But, naturally after 50 days, people are getting understandably antsy. If only to look forward to the light at the end of the tunnel. Pierre LeBrun at The Athletic had a great update setting the table of where things are. One thing is clear, the NHL is willing to be patient and do whatever it takes to end the 2019-20 season and award the Stanley Cup this season.

Several team executives that I have spoken with over the past week have said the league has hinted at being willing to go as late as September, maybe even October, to finish off the playoffs for this season. After that, some form of an offseason would be needed, even in a truncated form, before you could start a new season.

In that report is the speculation that the 2020-21 season might not begin until as late as December. The NHL would cancel the All-Star weekend, team bye weeks and compress 82 games in to a regular season that would bleed into May 2021. So the lasting effects of this pause will likely extend far into the future, no matter how it sorts out.

As usual, the kicker for the immediate future is when that “phase 2” of players being allowed to congregate together in team facilities will begin.

According to a memo, the league is making early plans that this could happen around mid-to-late May. From TSN’s Frank Seravelli:

The NHL hopes to move ahead to “Phase 2” and begin opening team practice facilities for small group workouts in the “mid-to-later portion of May,” the league said Wednesday in a memorandum distributed to teams and players.

“While the precise date … remains tentative and as yet undetermined, we do feel that we may be able – provided we continue to trend favorably – to move to ‘Phase 2’ at some point in the mid-to-later portion of May,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in the memo.

Daly wrote that the league’s plans for Phase 2 will be subject to “potential competitive concerns as between disparately situated markets.”

There still remain many more questions than answers right now. The US-Canada border is closed, and several players on American teams have returned to their Canadian homes (including Tristan Jarry, Jared McCann and Matt Murray, among other Penguins). TSN reported Air Canada having flights crossing the border on May 22nd, but one would think that’s possibly subject to change as well depending on how the future unfolds. Other NHL players are in Europe which presents even more difficulties.

Then you have the matter that teams in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and California — among other places — most certainly will not be able or allowed to meet at their home facilities at any point in May (and likely beyond) due to the outbreaks and virus spread in their areas. Do these teams relocate somewhere? That’s the “disparately situated markets” that Daly and the NHLPA mention in their statements above. How will the NHLPA sign off on having members separated from their families for weeks and months at a time? That’s been an issue already raised and will have to be considered as well.

For the Pens in Pittsburgh though, the situation is somewhat favorable. (As relatively favorable as it can be in a shutdown world due to a pandemic, anyways). Pennsylvania’s governor is set to announce tomorrow which counties can move from “red” as in totally stay-at-home to “yellow” on May 8th. It’s very conceivable, especially by May 15th or beyond that southwestern PA (including Butler County, where the UPMC Lemieux complex is) can be operational.

As April ends there are still many more questions than answers, and the future remains unknown, to a large extent. Plans have to stay fluid, but as of now the key for an NHL return seems to hinge around whether and how teams can start working out and skating together sometime in mid-to-late May. If all goes well, we’ll see hockey in the summer in some form as the league unpauses and tries to resume it’s season again.