Now that the National Hockey League has announced this week its detailed road map for returning to action with a playoff tentatively set for mid-July, it can start focusing on all the steps needed to make its plan actually happen.
There are many issues, some complicated, that need to be settled over the next several weeks to yield a 24-team, two-city hockey extravaganza that in its early stages would see up to three games played per day in a single arena, much like in the Olympics or the N.C.A.A. tournament.
But the most important step the N.H.L. must confront to move forward is the same one that daunts the rest of the United States — figuring out how to execute a coronavirus testing protocol for players, staff and family members.
The N.H.L.’s complex plan to end its regular season and jump into a 24-team playoff became necessary months ago when hockey, and most sports, were forced to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Resuming play could mean testing each player every night, expediting the results to be delivered in the mornings before players and staff head to arenas for games or practices. Gary Bettman, the N.H.L. commissioner, said in a news conference on Tuesday that by the end of the Stanley Cup finals the league will have administered 25,000 to 30,000 tests under the guidelines outlined in a memo on Monday.
Under the league’s phased plan to restart, individual teams will be responsible for testing their players and staff members when voluntary workouts at the clubs’ home practice facilities begin, which could be as early as next month. Mandatory training camps are tentatively expected to start as soon as July 1, when teams would also handle testing. Once the teams report to one of two hub cities for playoff games — which could begin in late July or August — the N.H.L. will take over testing and its costs, which Bettman said will run into the millions of dollars.
He also warned that the availability of tests will be a principal factor in choosing the two hub cities — one for each conference — from a list that includes Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton, Alberta; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Pittsburgh; Vancouver; and Toronto.
“We need to make sure that there is enough testing available and we’ll be needing lots and lots of testing,” he said. “But we don’t want it to interfere with the medical needs of the community. That has to come first.”
Players are likely to bring their families to the two hubs and, once inside, they would also need to undergo regimented testing. No plans have been made to allow guests or on who would assume the cost and administration of testing them.
Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner, said during the news conference that if one or two players test positive, it will not cause the entire project to shut down. But if a breakout occurs, it could cause a significant disruption.
“Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak, and that will affect our ability to continue playing,” Daly said. “But a single positive test or isolated positive tests throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.”
There are other more mundane health issues to be settled, too. Two and a half months have passed since most players were in playing shape, and they must resume training even before mandatory training camps open. Matt Nichol, who has trained N.H.L. players over summers for the last 22 years, said he expected more soft-tissue injuries and pointed to a rash of such injuries when Germany’s Bundesliga restarted earlier this month.
“It’s a reasonable expectation that there will be a higher number than normal,” Nichol said. “If you are careful you can reduce the chances of that happening. There is time for that, but there is not time to waste.”
Fans are not likely to be allowed at games but there could be fake fans. Bettman indicated the television networks will experiment with ways to make the broadcasts seem normal.
Selection of the hub cities is on hold as the N.H.L. tries to assess infection rates and travel restrictions with input from health officials and local government.
Daly said that the league is in talks with Canadian government officials to ensure that teams would be able to freely cross borders, but Canada, which has three cities on the prospective hubs list, has a mandated 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving in the country.
“We don’t have a resolution there,” Daly said, “but it’s an ongoing dialogue, for sure.”
Beyond the discussions with its external stakeholders, the league must also resolve outstanding competitive and economic issues with its players for its plan to become a reality. The two-tier playoff format, where the top four teams in each conference play a mini round-robin tournament to determine seeding while the remaining 16 teams play best-of-five series, has drawn criticism.
Some feel the number of playoff teams was expanded to 24 from 16 to include two more Canadian teams — the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets — plus the big-market Chicago Blackhawks, Rangers and Islanders. But the decision to set the playoff standings according to points percentage excluded all of the N.H.L.’s California-based teams and the Detroit Red Wings, one of its most well-followed franchises, from postseason play.
Seven teams had their seasons ended with Bettman’s announcement on Tuesday, with some, like the Buffalo Sabres and the Devils having played fewer games than their competitors.
Those teams can perhaps take solace in avoiding the headache of undertaking two months of preparation to play what could be only three games.
“Who’s happier than the seven teams who aren’t in it?” said Steve Valiquette, the former Islanders and Rangers goalie who now serves as an analyst for the MSG Network.
“Seriously, I went through this with the Islanders. We were out by a country mile and for those last two months it’s tough. I’m sure they are happy to get on with their summer program and get a fresh start for next year.”