NHL players returning to home cities is focus for Commissioner

The NHL is focused on getting players back to their home cities, tested for COVID-19 and ready to resume play, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday.

“At the peak I think we had 17 percent of our players outside of North America, and 56 percent of our players weren’t in the markets in which their teams play,” Commissioner Bettman told NBC Sports Network prior to the First Phase of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery. “But the goal is get everybody back, get everybody tested, make sure the right protocols are in place because health and safety is paramount. And then hopefully as a group we can hold off COVID-19, get everybody together in the hub cities and then finish the season with a great tournament.”

The NHL paused its season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, and team facilities were closed at that time. Under the NHL Return to Play Plan, 24 teams will compete for the Stanley Cup, and limited workouts could resume in cities as of June 8.

Phase 3, the start of training camps, is scheduled to begin July 10.

Phase 4 will begin with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will include 16 teams playing eight best-of-5 series, and a round-robin among the top four teams (by points percentage) in each conference to determine seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The eight teams that advance from the best-of-5 series will join the top four from each conference in the playoffs.

The qualifiers will be held at two hub cities to be identified — one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams and one for the 12 Western Conference teams — starting on a date to be determined.

Commissioner Bettman said the NHL has been in discussions with the NHL Players’ Association to select the hub cities and iron out the requirements for resuming play.

“We’ve been working very hard with the Players’ Association to isolate and focus on hub cities to make sure we have the right protocols in effect and to make sure all the surrounding agreements necessary and appropriate for us to return to play are in place,” the Commissioner said. “It’s been a very collaborative effort, and I’m hopeful that it all comes together very, very quickly.”

Team facilities were permitted to reopen for Phase 2, which includes voluntary on-ice and off-ice workouts in small groups. 

Training camps can open provided that medical and safety conditions allow and the parties have reached an agreement on the resumption of play. Players entering facilities for voluntary workouts have been subject to mandatory testing for COVID-19. The NHL announced June 19 that more than 200 players had multiple tests and 11 tested positive. Any player who tested positive went into self-isolation and followed Centers for Disease Control and Health Canada protocols.

“We have protocols in effect for Phase 2,” Commissioner Bettman said. “There have been a handful of positive tests, but more not from hockey participation but people reentering the markets where their teams play.”

The Commissioner also was asked about the role he hopes the NHL can play in helping to fight racial injustice. The death of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police May 25 sparked protests across the United States and led many NHL players to express their support for Black Lives Matter.

“In the final analysis for me and for everyone,” Commissioner Bettman said, “this has been a wake-up call that we need to do more, we need to do better, we need to be more self-aware and we need to be part of moving forward in a positive and constructive way to make sure everybody knows that racism has no place in our game, and our game is inclusive and is for everyone, and that is our goal.”

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