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Highlights of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play protocols for Phase III and IV

There are serious ramifications for breaking protocol.

2020 NHL Draft Lottery Photo by Bruce Bennett/NHLI via Getty Images

Late Monday afternoon word trickled out that the NHL and the NHLPA had agreed on the protocols surrounding the sport’s Return to Play initiative for the next two phases as well as an extension to the current CBA. This agreement will cover how teams handle the return to full training camps (Phase III) and then the actual games themselves (Phase IV). We now wait on the for the NHL’s Board of Governors, the NHLPA Executive Committee, and the NHLPA to approve the agreement. That should hopefully be done by the end of the week. In the Era of Bettman the two sides finally managed to agree to a new CBA without a work stoppage.

Based on the information provided by several members of the national media who received copies of the document, the teams are going to be on a pretty tight lock down once they reach Phase IV of the plan. The players and staff inside the hub city locations (Toronto and Edmonton) are going to be residing in a bubble that is going to be very restricted.

Here are some of the highlights from what we know so far.

Opt out option

Players are going to be allowed to opt out of participating due to health or personal reasons without penalty. There is a time limit on their decision, though. They have three days from the ratification of the protocols (which is expected to happen this week) to inform their team that they don’t wish to play.

It will be interesting to see how many players among the 24 teams choose this option. For better (usually for worse) the NHL is “do it for the boys” league and the pressure to participate even when a player feel uncomfortable will be strong. Undoubtedly there are players at higher risk (Max Domi and Cory Conacher instantly come to mind due to them living with Type 1 diabetes) where it’s going to be a really tough choice.

For today’s post we’ll focus on Phase IV protocols simply because most of Phase III is the same as Phase II except on a larger scale since teams are allowed 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goalies on the ice during practice.

Traveling Party Size

By July 13th, each team must submit a list of 52 people that will comprise the traveling party for the organization. That party must include the following:

  • up to 31 players
  • 3 coaches
  • 2 athletic trainers
  • 1 team doctor (if the organization has one that travels with them)
  • 1 equipment manager
  • 1 massage therapist
  • 1 team psychiatrist/chiropractor
  • 1 content/social media creator (for which Alex Killorn promptly volunteered)
  • 1 security official
  • 1 compliance official who will have the unenviable task of coordinating all the different testing and procedures between the team and the league.

That list itself makes up 44 people (if you don’t have a psychiatrist who is also a chiropractor) which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room once you start adding executives like the general manager and assistant general manager.

There are going to be some staff members not making the trip to Toronto for the Lightning. Just based on the team’s web page - Jon Cooper usually rolls with a coaching staff of three assistant coaches (Todd Richards, Jeff Halpern, and Derek Lalonde), a goaltending coach (Frantz Jean), a video coach (Nigel Kirwan), a video coordinator (Brian Garlock), and a director of high performance and strength coach (Mark Lambert).

Head Athletic Trainer Tommy Mulligan has an even larger staff that he can usually rely on. There are going to be some adjustments that have to be made by the staff and the players to be able to communicate all of the information that they are used to getting, or receive the treatment they are used to, with just a skeleton staff.

It is possible that the team opens up some traveling spots for staff by not taking the full compliment of 31 players, but that could be a dangerous ploy should a player get hurt or have to go into isolation. I wouldn’t expect the Lightning to take less than 30 player up to Toronto when they depart at the end of training camp.

Layers of Protection

Once in the hub cities, participants will be placed into groups based on their proximity to the players and coaches.

Group 1 - Essential personal. This is the group that includes the players and all the supporting staff that comes into close contact with them on a daily basis. Not only will it contain the 52-person traveling parties, but also all of the on and off ice officials (that work the games), locker room staff, and NHL staff that is needed to put on the games and make this all work. All of these people will be in a secure-zone hotel and undergo daily COVID-19 testing.

Group 2 - These folks will limited or no contact with people in Group 1, but need to be onsite to perform their duties. Event coordinators, certain hotel staff, dentists, people like that. They won’t be allowed into the player spaces but will be in the secure-zone hotel and will require daily testing.

Group 3 - This group will consist of people that have daily, but short contact with the first two groups. Security, EMT, hotel bartenders (the coach’s best friend), and ice crew. They will be set up in a separate hotel or allowed to go home if they are local. They also will have daily tests.

Group 4- This group will consist of those that have even less contact. So your PA announcers and game day presentation staff will be in this group along with hotel housekeeping, kitchen staff, and arena workers. Like Group 3 they will be in a separate hotel or allowed to go home and need daily testing.

Group 5 - The final group will be made up of the press and third-party vendors who will have no contact with the first four groups. Again, they will be in a separate hotel or at home. this group will not require daily testing, but will be subject to daily temperature checks.

All of the groups will be required to wear credentials indicating what level they are belong to. Anyone without a credential will be denied entry into a secure zone.

Leaving the Secure Zone

Having a secure zone makes zero sense if people can enter or leave at will. So it is expected that those in Groups 1 and 2, stay in the bubble for the duration of their stay. The agreement acknowledges that things outside of their control can happen so participants will be allowed to leave for certain circumstances (death/birth in the family, consultation with outside doctors, or picking up medical treatment or prescriptions).

Should someone leave, they will need four consecutive negative PCR test results during a four-day period. During the testing period they will be quarantined in their hotel room under the results come back.

If an individual leaves the secure zone without permission, they can be dismissed from the competition or required to quarantine for 10-14 days.

Testing and Positive Results

There is going to be so much testing going on. With daily tests going on they should be able to detect any hints of the virus before participants are symptomatic. Still, anyone feeling symptoms is required to report it immediately.

If a participant does test positive they are to be quarantined immediately until the medical staff clears them. During this time they are not allowed to take part in any team activities or exercise. Even if the person who tests positive is asymptomatic, they must remain in isolation until two consecutive RT-PCR tests, administered 24 hours apart, come back negative.

It was also announced that if a player tests positive his name will not be released unless agreed upon by the NHLPA and the league. That’s not exactly surprising for a league that has made fudging injury reports an art form. Of course, if a regular player is suddenly no where to be found on the practice ice or in a game, it won’t be tough to figure out why.

Hotel and hygiene protocols

There is a long and extensive list of practices and procedures that will go into effect to maintain as sterile of an environment as possible. No post game sauna for the players at the hotel, no talking in the elevators, and each team having their own separate floor in the hotel are some of the highlights.

The same goes for in-game and practice procedures. Each player is getting their own water bottle and towels are going to be single use only (so much laundry soap is going to be used!) Masks are going to be omnipresent everywhere off the ice and outside of the workout rooms and every surface that players come into contact with will be sprayed down with disinfectant.

Non-Hockey Stuff

Each club is going to have a designated dining space in the secure hotel zones. They will also be allowed to order contact-less room service and delivery from local restaurants. It appears that the deliveries would be to a secure spot in the hotel, the containers wiped down with disinfectant, and then handled by staff that has been cleared medically. Which makes sense, because we don’t need a random Uber Eats driver delivering late night pizza to Steven Stamkos directly.

Details for social excursions haven’t been provided yet, but are expected to include movies, golf and perhaps live music.

Players families will be allowed to join them for the conference and Stanley Cup final rounds provided they are cleared medically and observe the secure zone protocols.

What does this all mean?

Hopefully, by the time we get to Phase IV (sometime around early August) there are fewer and fewer positive tests coming from teams in training camps. As of Monday, 35 player have tested positive since Phase II started in early June. I would expect that number to increase as more players make their way into training camp and testing increases.

The next month or so will be the most critical part of the season for the league. Once everyone is in the bubble it will be easier to control the environment, but unless teams lock their players down during the training camp portion, it will be hard to keep individuals from possibly coming into contact with others carrying the virus. Constant monitoring and testing during this phase is going to be key to keeping things moving towards the next step.

The league and the players association have done the best they can to come up with a plan for Phase IV (should we all make it there) that will minimize the chances of a large outbreak and allow the playoffs to happen. It doesn’t guarantee 100% effectiveness, because no plan can, but it comes as close as possible as a plan can.

The players are going to have to deal with a lot of things that they aren’t used to and as creatures of routine that could be troubling for them. However, once inside of the secure zone bubble, they should be able to carve out a routine that they can adhere to on a daily basis.

It is imperative that every individual adheres to the protocols set forth in the agreement. They cannot let complacency creep in four or five weeks into the competition and start forgoing some of the rules in place.

There is a process included in the protocols for either side to cancel or postpone Phase IV if the proceeding become jeopardized in some fashion. Commissioner (and Hall of Famer) Gary Bettman would have the ultimate say, after consulting with Donald Fehr, in regards to cancelling the rebooted season. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that and the NHL somehow pulls off this conclusion to the season by crowning a Stanley Cup champion.