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Lightning Round: Baseball provides a path for hockey’s return

What can the NHL learn from MLB’s return to action this weekend?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

According to Bob McKenzie, we are one step closer to seeing NHL hockey being played this summer:

After a weekend of radio silence regarding the sport, McKenzie was among the first to report that the league and the NHLPA have an agreement on the protocols for returning to play. Hopefully, all of the little details that need to be finalized can be done in the next few days and hockey will return to our lives in some form in the next ten days.

When it does come back, they have the ability to see how the other sports have handled the process. Baseball had a flood of action as players returned to their respective home fields to kick off their return to training camps. There was plenty of socially distanced photos of players in masks arriving to facilities and then grainy distant video’s of batting practice.

Along with the excitement of seeing actual sports practice (yes, we’re talking about practice) there was the less exciting parts - sports in the age of Covid-19. It hasn’t been the smoothest return for baseball (or basketball or soccer) as they try to safely handle the influx of players returning from around the country.

There have been positive tests. There have been players, some high profile, opting out of the season. There has been the ongoing discussion of if it’s even worth playing a 60-game season. With the NHL planning to return sometime in the next week to ten days, what can they learn from the MLB?

  1. There are going to be positive tests.

Much like your neighbor nearly losing a finger shooting off fireworks every 4th of July it’s inevitable. It will be impossible to have over 1,000 people travel to different locations without some of them contracting the virus.

What happens with the players who test positive is more important than the fact that they tested that way. The protocols are in place to minimize large outbreaks and need to be adhered to strictly. That’s what the NHL is monitoring as teams ramp up their returns in their home cities. Following the report last week that four members of the St. Louis Blues organization tested positive, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley spoke to that,

“What we didn’t want to see, and what we wanted (and need) to avoid are mini-outbreaks. That’s why conservative approaches to response management is so critical at this stage.”

Consistent testing, proper safety equipment, and adherence to the plan they have in place should help prevent a large scale outbreak that would threaten the continuation of the season.

2. Make sure teams have the proper equipment in place and tests are handled quickly.

Washington National’s pitcher Sean Doolittle has been very candid in regards to how MLB is handling the situation and he noted that the team does not have the N-95 masks that they were told were coming. The inbound testing that the players are conducting has also been delayed. That is unacceptable.

It’s not so much that the masks aren’t there, it’s more about providing an environment that the players feel safe heading to on a daily basis. After a somewhat contentious period of negotiations in order to return, the players have the right to know that the NHL as a whole, and the individual organizations are doing everything they can to make sure things are as healthy as possible for the players and the staff.

The testing has to be quick and reliable. It does no good to conduct a test that ends up taking more than 48 hours to know the result from. Especially if testing negative is a major factor in allowing players to participate in games. The longer tests are delayed the greater the likelihood that a larger outbreak can happen.

Not only do the tests have to be timely, they have to be reliable as well. A handful of players testing positive in Phase III is unfortunate, but manageable. Finding out the tests they are taken are invalid - that is inexcusable and cause to shut the whole thing down.

3. Go easy on the “Hooray! Hockey is back!” social media campaigns

The entire weekend seemed to be filled with team accounts Tweeting about how great it was that “the boys are back!” and gushing over players fielding routine ground balls or taking batting practice. It’s disconcerting to see that, and then the next Tweet is about one of the best players in the game, Mike Trout, feeling uncomfortable about returning.

There is a happy medium to be found between acknowledging the return of hockey and not jumping right into social media as usual.

The next few months are going to be the weirdest months in the history of the NHL. Things are going to happen that have never happened before. There are also things going to happen that we aren’t even thinking about right now. The league and the players are going to have to be flexible and willing to adapt (something they’re not really known for) in order to adjust. Most importantly, they have to be willing to put money aside and pull the plug if things go sideways.

News and Notes:

Brent Seabrook may be healthy enough to return to action for the Chicago Blackhawks. Following surgery on one shoulder and both hips the veteran defender with the ponderous contract still has to be cleared medically to join the team, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be back for the play-in round. The other question will be if he’s good enough to make the top six of their defense.