As governments around the world contemplate the process of reopening their dormant economies, the NHL has floated at what first blush might look like a far-fetched and unwieldy plan to complete the 2019-20 season. The plan would see the league reconvene this summer, in front of no fans in three or four different venues, and complete the regular season and playoffs sometime in September.
Sounds like a bit of a pipe dream, doesn’t it? Well, that is until you consider that the NHL-NHL Players’ Association’s Return to Play Committee has been seeking out the right people and asking the right questions and it’s not having the door slammed in its face. In fact, one of Canada’s leading experts on infectious diseases thinks that it’s entirely feasible that the NHL could find some closure this season using the proposed model.
“I think it’s got legs,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an associate professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto who specializes in infectious diseases. “I think there’s real traction here.”
Just because the NHL wants it to be so doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. In fact, there’s a very real chance we won’t be seeing any hockey this season and beyond, particularly if there’s an unexpected spike in cases of COVID-19 cases. “I still think people need to be open-minded that it might not work out if things turn sideways,” Bogoch said, “but it could certainly work. It certainly could.” The NHL’s goal is to complete this season and it’s doing its due diligence and not closing the door on any possibilities it could make that happen. Can’t blame the league for doing that.
One thing that will have to happen before the NHL even thinks of playing in a city is that there will have to be a sustained decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases being reported per day. Not a flattening of the curve, not a small reduction, but a significant and sustained reduction, as well as proper contact tracing and evidence that health officials have the disease under control. And most constituencies in North America are a long way away from that, although presumably that won’t be the case two months from now. “That’s what they’re really going to be looking for,” Bogoch said. “I think the biggest hurdle is you really need public health to give it a green light. If they say no, it’s a non-starter.”
You would have to assume that by that point, the NHL and the players would continue to be in lock step in their intentions to return to play. The real key, as Bogoch said, is getting federal, state/provincial and municipal health officials on board, as well as the local population. Even then, though, there might be some unexpected curve thrown at the process and there might be further delays. Even though it may seem as though it is, even experts such as Bogoch acknowledge it is not an exact science. “This is going to boil down to a value judgment, really,” he said. “It’s going to be a value judgment on behalf of many different groups. This is truly shared decision-making. You can look at all the data and what the proposal is and at the end of the day those groups together will have to decide together, is it worth it, yes or no?”
A couple of things Bogoch stressed was that even with players quarantined in hotels and going only to and from the rink, there’s still no foolproof method short of a vaccine that will provide full protection from the virus. U.S. president Donald Trump outlined a three-phase return to normalcy, with the second phase being opening of some businesses with social distances rules, while avoiding gatherings of more than 50 people, “unless precautionary measures are taken.” The league could conceivably return under those circumstances, even though a game in an empty building would almost certainly require more than 50 people. “There will be people that will help to clean the rooms, there will be food handlers, there will be shipping and delivering and maintenance,” Bogoch said. “Nothing is going to be zero percent risk, but certainly you can do things to really mitigate that risk.”
And then there’s the matter of dealing with the possibility of a player testing positive during this process. There are many who feel this would be the domino that would knock all the others over and topple the entire plan, but Dr. Bogoch doesn’t share that opinion. “No, not at all,” when asked whether a positive test would spell the end of the initiative. “You just need to have a system set up that if someone tests positive, you can rapidly identify them and ensure they are isolated and make sure there is a lot of testing so there is safety for everyone else. Is it theoretically possible? Sure it is."
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