The NHL and NHL Players’ Association have been cooperating of late in an effort to determine when and how the league may be able resume play and complete the 2019-20 season. After the joint Return to Play Committee met earlier today, the two side released the following statement:
Despite numerous reports and speculation over the last several days, the NHL and the NHLPA have not made any decisions or set a timeline for possible return to play scenarios.
Given recent developments in some NHL Clubs’ local communities, we are now looking ahead to a Phase 2 of the transition period that would follow the currently recommended Phase 1 period of “self-quarantine” by Players and Hockey Staff.
The precise date of transition to Phase 2, during which Players might return to small group activities in NHL Club training facilities, remains undetermined. However, provided that conditions continue to trend favorably – and, subject to potential competitive concerns as between disparately situated markets – we believe we may be able to move to Phase 2 at some point in the mid-to-later portion of May. Specific guidelines governing Player and Hockey Staff activity would be provided at that time. In the meantime, we expect Players and Hockey Staff to continue to adhere to the recommended guidelines put in place when the season was paused on March 12.
While the statement does not provide any material update to the status of the season, the tone is a hopeful one as the two sides detail a rough plan to get players back to their cities and working out in the coming month. This aligns with many of the recent rumors that foreign players had been informed that they would soon need to return to North America and their respective teams, all pointing toward a presumptive continuation of team workouts in May and perhaps training camp (Phase 3) and game action (Phase 4) later in June. As Frank Seravalli of TSN points out, releasing this information now gives players more time to figure out the logistics of a return, with most commercial airlines closed to international travel.
What the league and players’ union also must still decide is how exactly they will continue the season if it gets to that point. The latest speculation from Sportsnet’s Mark Spector details a number of NHL cities bidding for the right to host games by outlining the safest, simplest, and most cost-effective ways to house teams while minimizing the risk of Coronavirus exposure. Local government health policies will also weigh heavily into where these neutral locations might be. Beyond where the games take place, a decision will also need be made on who will take part and in what format. Spector notes that the hope of completing an 82-game season is dwindling but that 76 or 78 games may still be possible. If finishing the regular season proves too difficult, he states that a playoff tournament that includes the top six teams in each division is currently the most probable postseason format.
Again, it is difficult to put too much stock in any conjecture at this point when the NHL and NHLPA clearly state that they do not yet even have a timeline for players returning to their teams nevertheless returning to game action. However, this formal announcement is a step in the right direction and if things continue to “trend favorably”, this won’t be the last update on the 2019-20 continuation.