Today, the NHL will receive the final rosters from the 24 teams scheduled to play in the 2020 post-season. Bubble life is upon us, hockey fans. Teams can bring a maximum of 31 players with them to Toronto and Edmonton, while each franchise can bring up to 52 people in total into the bubble.
With actual hockey games starting next week, it's time to dig into what this grand experiment is really all about. The NHL held a massive webinar today, where a number of officials were made available to the media to answer any queries about Return to Play. So here's a Need to Know on the NHL's playoff plans.
Home-Ice Advantage? Not Really
Toronto and Edmonton were chosen as the hub cities for Return to Play and the health and safety aspect was foremost on the minds of NHL officials: both cities have low caseloads of Covid-19, relative to many other NHL cities.
"It's not a coincidence," said commissioner Gary Bettman, "that the hub cities are Toronto and Edmonton, because of our focus on health and safety and where Covid-19 is and isn't."
Having said that, don't expect the Maple Leafs or Oilers to be more comfortable. Both teams will still be sequestered away in hotels and they won't get any advantage when it comes to dressing rooms either: room assignments have been scheduled and while the Oilers will start their series against Chicago as the home team (thanks to higher seeding), the Hawks will be the "home team" in Game 3, for example. And due to the tournament's packed schedule, don't be surprised if in some games, the "home" team is using the "visitors" bench.
No Friends in the Playoffs
Players are going to be surrounded by their teammates and only their teammates for weeks, if not months during this Stanley Cup tournament, so it's fair to ask if there will be any fraternization between squads in hotel lounges, or at the movie theatres players will have access to. But according to Steve Mayer, the NHL's chief content officer, the players have said they don't want to hang out with other teams. Everyone is trying to win a title, after all. For the first five days of the bubble, players would not have been allowed to fraternize with other teams anyway, but it sounds like that won't be a problem for this competitive lot. In terms of outdoor excursions, they will be possible after two weeks in Edmonton (we all remember Alberta's hype video), but it does not sound like leaving the bubble will be allowed in Toronto.
The Ice Will be Nice
One of the original concerns with shifting the NHL season way into the dog days of summer regarded the condition of ice - especially since the arenas will host multiple games per day. But the fact the rinks will not have 19,000 fans in the stands actually off-sets the outside temperature.
"The real problem is when the doors open in a facility and the fans come in, with their body heat," said NHL director of hockey ops Colin Campbell. "We have no concerns about the ice conditions and we've talked with our ice guys in-depth about this."
Kris King, the NHL's senior VP of hockey ops, added that there will not be morning skates at the main arenas in order to maintain as much ice integrity as possible.
Technical Difficulties (and Advantages)
Pre-pandemic, the NHL had planned to use player- and puck-tracking technology in the post-season. With so many other things going on now, that will not happen for at least the first two rounds of the tournament. The NHL is committed, however, to using the tech for the start of the 2020-21 regular season.
On the plus side, the empty arenas give Mayer and the TV presentation folks a very unique opportunity to expand what an NHL broadcast looks like.
"We're able to walk around these arenas and find the perfect, most ideal position for every one of our cameras," Mayer said. "It's our goal to show a hockey game in a manner that shows off the speed and makes you feel part of the game. We've all wanted our game to translate better for television. We think we're going to be able to accomplish that in this tournament because of the way we can bring our fans right inside the game: down low, show the speed, hear the sounds. I'm super-excited about the broadcasts."
There will be 32 cameras used per game in the tournament, up from the usual 20.
Players will be tested daily for Covid-19, with results coming within 24 hours. Healthcare teams within the bubble will assess threats and the NHL will take its lead from public officials. One positive test will not deflate the entire bubble.
"We've had a lot of discussion with the health authority," said Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, the NHL's chief medical officer, "and landed on a strategy that's quite similar to healthcare workers where you assume that there's a degree of exposure. We still will do contact tracing because there's degrees of exposure, and if we feel a degree of exposure is unusually high, they still may be quarantined. But at the end of the day this is a protocol that has a lot of involvement and input and signoff from the Players' Association, so as a group the players are comfortable with it."
Bettman noted that while he ultimately has the authority to decide whether or not a player can play in the tournament, he will defer to medical personnel - both from the provinces and the NHL/NHLPA.
It's a Marathon, not a Sprint
The tournament hasn't even started yet, so it's difficult to assess what the future holds. But the commissioner is taking things one step at a time.
"I don't sit back and try and dislocate my shoulder trying to either pat myself or anybody else on the back," Bettman said. "If there's any point where I'm going to feel substantial emotion, it'll be a sense of relief when I get to present the Stanley Cup."