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Are the NHL and NHLPA responsible enough to resume the season?

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Other leagues around the world have adopted strict rules to return to play, but the NHL may have difficulty adhering to such restrictions.

Gary Bettman Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

We’ve hit two months since the postponement of the NHL season, and as June beckons around the corner, time is running out for the league to make a decision on the fate of the 2019-20 campaign. Naturally, official and unofficial discourse regarding potential options and methods for resuming the season has ramped up in recent weeks. The restart of professional sports in South Korea and Taiwan — as well as planned resumptions in Germany and Spain — have also offered cautious hope.

Is a resumption feasible?

It is entirely possible to resume the NHL season from a public health standpoint, assuming several criteria are met. The first is the implementation of a comprehensive and regular testing program for all personnel involved. Testing would need to be frequent and results would need to be returned rapidly. In South Korea, KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) players are tested every day. For the German Bundesliga, partnerships were established with five laboratories to process an estimated 25,000 required tests in total. Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) players in Taiwan are not required to undergo swab tests, but do undergo intensive temperature testing.

The second is the adoption of some fairly major behavioural changes. In addition to testing, KBO players not in baseball uniforms must wear masks and gloves. Open-palm high-fives have been banned, along with spitting. (In order to aid adherence to the last edict, chewing tobacco has been banned in KBO dugouts.)

CPBL players have been banned from eating at restaurants or taking high-speed rail on road trips. For Bundesliga players, some of whom have already resumed training, it has meant no contact, no showers, and a lot of small group drills based on player position.

The resources are available for the NHL to adopt all of these practices. Although Canada and the United States have yet to implement widespread public testing on the scale of any of the aforementioned three administrations, the two nations have sufficient existing biopharmaceutical infrastructure — especially in the private sector — to handle the NHL’s testing demands. The necessary behaviour alterations may feel strange at first, especially given how much hockey players spit at every turn, but professional athletes are generally competent when it comes to adapting to rule changes.

What are the risks?

Obviously, the main risk is league personnel contracting Covid-19 from season-related activities, and this is an active risk. During the lead-up to resumption, German Football League (DFL) officials performed 1,724 tests amongst all 36 clubs of the upper two tiers. Not all cases were made public, but 10 positive results were reported to health authorities. Since that first wave of testing, second-division club Erzgebirge Aue placed their entire squad in home isolation after a member of their staff tested positive, while Dynamo Dresden, also of the second division, cancelled their scheduled first fixture and placed their entire squad and coaching staff into isolation for two weeks after two players tested positive.

The NHL will need to establish a contingency plan in the event of any positive tests before any resumption can be considered. For the CPBL, one confirmed case will put the entire league on hold. For the KBO, a positive test results in contact tracing, implementations of additional quarantines, and if necessary, league suspension for three weeks. And while the DFL has not formally said anything, the actions of their member clubs indicate that positive tests will lead to an immediate cessation of sporting activity for, at minimum, the affected team.

However, the NHL will be tremendously tempted to exact more relaxed measures. For baseball, the impact of subsequent temporary postponements will be mitigated by how the season has just begun, as well as the length of the schedule. For hockey, a second stoppage post-resumption may be a death knell, and will be something that the NHL will seek to avoid at all costs. Moreover, unlike in South Korea, Taiwan, or Germany, the NHL will be working with legislative bodies — especially in certain parts of the United States — that will allow them such permissiveness.

Can the NHL and NHLPA be trusted to be responsible?

The problem is that a more relaxed set of rules in this circumstance can lead to more chaos, especially given the secrecy surrounding injuries and illnesses that permeates hockey culture.

  • In the event of a resumption, who will be overseeing league-wide testing? Will it be the league itself, a third-party commissioned by the league, or NHL team doctors/medical staff?
  • Will all positive tests, especially asymptomatic ones, be properly reported to the relevant authorities?
  • In the event of a positive test, who will be enforcing Covid-19 related isolations and quarantines?

The actions of the KBO, CPBL, and DPL are being tightly monitored by governmental and public health agencies. Such close oversight is not likely to be present in North America, where governments are much more hesitant to intervene in the operations of private entities. Furthermore, there may be possible discrepancies in Covid-19 regulations between different hub cities. There is a reason that the UFC resumed in the state of Florida, for example. In the absence of strong centralized leadership from the NHL, some teams may wind up playing by different rules.

To date, the NHL has not done anything to warrant such distrust from a public health standpoint during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the NHL’s judicial inconsistency when it comes to on- and off-ice disciplinary issues has been the subject of constant debate among fans. The league’s stance on concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has also not inspired confidence in how it views the safety of its players.

  • If the Edmonton Oilers discover that Connor McDavid has tested positive, but is asymptomatic, the night before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, will they isolate him?
  • If the NHL discovers positive tests in fourth-liners and bubble players across multiple teams, will they shut down the league, even if it meant effectively ending the season?

When asked to comment on the resumption of the Bundesliga, Dr. Tim Meyer, head of the DFL’s task force, said, “if discipline is not adhered to, then even the best concept can falter.”

Does the NHL and its players have the discipline to put public safety above sporting matters? If the answer is ‘no,’ then any resumption of the NHL season will do more harm than good.