NHL, union agree on protocols to resume season

The sides are still working on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to bringing back hockey this summer.
A look down the tunnel from the ice and team bench back toward the Lightning locker room at Amalie Arena.
A look down the tunnel from the ice and team bench back toward the Lightning locker room at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 6, 2020|Updated July 6, 2020

The NHL and the players association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games, and the sides were still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

The return-to-play protocols would go into effect only if each side votes to approve the full package of the labor-deal extension and return-to-play agreement, The Associated Press said.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full union membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, that would end a coronavirus-forced shutdown that began in mid March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs in two hub cities, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games.

Each team would be limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team would be limited to 52 personnel in its hub city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and a compliance officer in addition to players, coaches and management.

All personnel would be expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the playoff qualifying round and the first two playoff rounds. Family members would be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff members coming in contact with players would be tested daily in the hub cities.

If play does resume, one player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tested positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

“The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June.

The protocols include a provision for commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with union executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a virus outbreak.

If everything is approved by the owners and players in the next few days, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8, nearly three months after hockey was shut down March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

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Returning for the playoffs would be seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season, and word of positive coronavirus tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8 — three of them with the Lightning, none of them identified — in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results “eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

“We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Canadiens goaltender Carey Price said. “The NHL and the (union) are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered before I could vote yay or nay.”

If the protocols and a labor-deal extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005, when the season was canceled because of a lockout.