It’s remarkable what can be accomplished when both sides in a negotiation put their heads together and get on the same page to come up with an agreement. We’re seeing that right now with the NHL and NHLPA during unprecedented times – the COVID-19 crisis that put an end to the season back in March.
While final details still have to be finalized, the expectation is the NHL board of governors and the rank and file of the NHLPA will be voting sometime this week on an agreement to return to play in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton and on a new six-year collective bargaining agreement. The return to play details and protocols are exhaustive by themselves. On top of that, a new CBA.
Until everything is signed, sealed and delivered, there’s always a chance there will be a point or two of contention that could hang things up. That we’re this close given the circumstances, I can’t imagine the sides won’t find a way to get things finalized and get teams into the bubbles and back on the ice. In years past, the NHL and NHLPA have found themselves dug in on opposite sides of details and issues less complicated than what we have now.
The scope of what’s been and is still being negotiated — where we’re at in terms of the return to play plan — is spelled out in a detailed piece written by Frank Seravalli of TSN here. It’s a must-read for context. There’s a handful of items outlined by Seravalli that stand out for me.
Testing: Every person inside the NHL’s “bubble” will be tested for COVID-19 daily via nasal swab, also administered temperature checks and symptom screenings. The list of people requiring daily testing is massive and includes but is not limited to: all players, staff, officials, arena ice crew, security, hotel bartenders, food service staff, arena food and beverage staff, hotel housekeeping, hotel kitchen and food prep staff, and bus drivers. Simply put, any person who has contact or may come into contact (even indirectly) will be tested daily.
With teams allowed up to 52 people (including up to 31 players), that’s a massive undertaking (1,248 tests daily) even before they started swabbing hotel support staff. Everybody in hockey-ops — coaches, scouts, trainers – gets the swab. Likewise, all team media content personnel, of which at least one is required. Up your nose it goes. Smart-ass remarks aside, it’s absolutely necessary.
Opt-out: Any player may choose to not participate in the return-to-play tournament for any reason and without penalty. The deadline to opt-out will be three days after this return-to-play protocol package is ratified by a vote, likely giving players at least until July 13, when the list of each traveling party is due.
A handful of Major League Baseball players have already opted out of the 2020 season – Ryan Zimmerman and David Price, to name just two, have done so. So, what’s the over/under on the number of NHL players who might do likewise? How many players have pre-existing conditions, like asthma as one example, or family matters that might cause them to opt out? I don’t imagine it’ll be a long list, but we’ll find out in the next week or so.
Nondisclosure: No player who tests positive or develops symptoms will be identified to media or publicly, absent approval from the NHL or NHLPA.
Given how teams have withheld details about injuries, particularly at playoff time, for years, this isn’t surprising. Anybody within the bubbles who tests positive for COVID-19 will be isolated and will undergo a second test. If that’s positive, they’ll have to remain in isolation until medically cleared – two negative tests within 48 hours. In any case, we can’t expect a straight answer as to why Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl or anybody else isn’t playing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Edmonton Oilers aren’t only in the play-in round against the Chicago Blackhawks, they’ve got a chance to advance and play for the Stanley Cup at home. Fans, as you’d expect, are pumped even if they won’t be in the building. Terrific. Unlike what we’ve seen in some cities, mostly in the U.S., where opening things up has too often meant ignoring safety measures and igniting new spikes in the name of cutting loose and getting the party started, the NHL and NHLPA has put health and safety front and centre.
Pending a vote this week, we’ll have hockey again and the Stanley Cup presented right here in Edmonton. More important, both the NHL and NHLPA are on the same page in making sure it’s done the right way with an eye to what matters beyond what happens out on the ice. This is a plan everybody can get behind. Let’s go.