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Lightning, NHL still in theoretical stage of bringing back hockey

A vague plan of perhaps putting small groups on the ice in “mid to later May” is the latest idea on the table.
Amalie Arena is seen Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. The National Hockey League yesterday announced that is it keeping a close eye on the coronavirus pandemic and will make an announcement around 1:00 p.m. Today.
Amalie Arena is seen Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. The National Hockey League yesterday announced that is it keeping a close eye on the coronavirus pandemic and will make an announcement around 1:00 p.m. Today. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 2, 2020
Updated May 2, 2020

The National Hockey League desperately wants to finish its season, but going from theoretical plan to practical is a sticking point.

The league’s Return to Play Committee — consisting of players; representatives of the players’ union, the NHL Players Association; and representatives of the league — met Wednesday and outlined a vague blueprint for players to return to training facilities in “mid to later May.”

The NHL also asked that players who left their team’s city after the season was put on hold March 12 to think about returning, given they might need to quarantine for 14 days once back. That could be challenging with the U.S.-Canada border closed to nonessential travel and European travel remaining uncertain.

Even if teams are able to start small-group activities this month, the group sizes allowed likely would be determined by city or state officials. Beyond that, games would not follow quickly.

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So, why bother?

Because the NHL needs the playoffs.

Going without ticket and concession profits is already a financial hit for a league with less-lucrative TV contracts than the other three major North American sports leagues: the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. But money is still on the table from playoff-specific sponsorships and TV deals; the website The Athletic estimated $350 million to $500 million.

The NHL also has already gone without a championship once in the past 20 years; the 2004-05 season didn’t happen due to a lockout. It doesn’t want another championship-less season if possible.

Here’s what likely needs to happen to ensure this season isn’t lost:

• Conditioning. Most NHL players have not gone this long without skating. It has been 53 days since most were allowed inside rinks (injured players are allowed at rinks to work with athletic trainers). They don’t even go that long without skating in the offseason. In a recent video conference call, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said different scenarios — such as whether small groups could get on the ice before a training camp would begin — would affect how much time players would need to prepare. “You have to train their skating muscles again that haven’t been used,” he said. “It’s going to take some time. How much time, I don’t know, but it’s going to be a gradual process.” Players have said they’ll need at least two to three weeks. They’ve been trying to stay in shape. They’ve been trying to stay in shape the best they can.

• Regular-season resumption. Players including Lightning defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman have made clear a preference for playing regular-season games before the playoffs. The league needs games to even out the standings, and the players need games to get back into the flow of hockey. As for when games could be played, it’s looking like July at the earliest.

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• Locations for play set. States have started to relax restrictions; Florida will start to open businesses Monday. One idea calls for playing games at about four region sites, of which Tampa could be one. Multiple teams would play at each site in a metaphorical bubble made up of hotels, arenas and practice rinks.

• Logistics established. Players have raised concerns about being away from their families for months if the region-sites plan is used. Also, the league would need a way to isolate players and team staffs in addition to bare-bones arena staff, on- and off-ice officials, and the hotel staff that would cater to teams. Regular health monitoring would seem likely, as long as enough coronavirus tests would be available without taking them from the general population.