The shockwaves were probably louder than the shock. On Friday afternoon, TSN Inside Bob McKenzie first reported that a small COVID-19 outbreak forced one team to close its facilities this week, during Phase 2 of the NHL return. It was soon after revealed it was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had three players, and two staff members test positive.
No, don’t head for the hills just yet or even assume the NHL return cannot continue as planned. The Phase 3 training camps will begin on July 10. But many already feel the fear. Some of my colleagues feel it, and some of the National Hockey Now family firmly believe this ship just isn’t going to sail.
Colorado Hockey Now asks — Is it time to worry about the 2020 NHL Return?
First, let’s tackle a few realities from the statistical evidence. We just had two weeks of meaningful national marches, millions of businesses, including casinos and restaurants re-open, plus millions of more people lowered their guard. Common sense tells us from the wave of new factors that new virus cases were going to spike. But it is vital to separate new case rates from hospitalization rates.
It’s imperative because in that differentiation lies a new reality.
Clark County, NV reported 342 new cases earlier this week. The spike is a public health concern, but officials also made special note to say that a similar increase in hospitalizations did not occur.
Of the Tampa Bay Lightning cases which closed their facility, three were asymptomatic, and two had low-grade fevers, but nothing more. Later Friday, Toronto columnist Steve Simmons reported star center Auston Matthews also contracted it. Other reports indicate several Arizona Coyotes also tested positive.
A few Ottawa Senators had the virus in March. Officials traced the outbreak back to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which was an infected hotbed. Tests revealed one Pittsburgh Penguins player was positive on the eve of Phase 2.
PHN is NOT claiming young folks are immune or advocating young and healthy adults should revert to real life without care or caution. Though we are acknowledging whippersnappers who are healthy and in good shape, have a very low chance of serious complications. Ridiculously low, actually.
The wave of cases in Tampa Bay and Arizona are a cause for concern. A third or fourth outbreak could put a serious delay in the process.
And, if the new wave of cases is enough to scare off the players, they have that right to cancel the season. No one should be forced back to work while we are in what Dr. Anthony Fauci termed on Wednesday as “the middle of the first wave.” But there isn’t a great swell of support to pull the plug on this venture.
“Obviously, for any sport, if you have a major outbreak, it’s going to change everything,” Bettman said Monday night on ESPN. “But we’re being told an isolated case or a couple of isolated cases shouldn’t interfere with the plans, and we should be able to move forward.”
Most players know this is a greater good for our countries, for the game, and even for themselves as they rescue the league which pays them.
Also, keep in mind two crucial factors. The wave of positive results is because there is a wave of testing the players as part of Phase 2, not because many new players are falling ill. Also, as part of the voluntary nature of Phase 2, players are allowed to be in public like everyone else. They have not yet been placed in “the bubble” which they will live in during Phase 3 and Phase 4.
Maybe they need to enter a bubble NOW.
But there’s no need to panic yet.
What If… #2
What if a mini outbreak occurs during Phase 4 games? Should a playoff game be postponed if several players get sick?
However, an outbreak should not occur during Phase 3 or Phase 4. Actually, it absolutely cannot happen, or that means there was a flaw in the “bubble” process that must be immediately addressed. And nothing should continue until those procedural holes are located and fixed.
No way can the players be subjected to even a negligible additional risk. The NHL and NHLPA are confident they will have things under control, and there is an unprecedented level of trust amongst the sides. There is a confirmed commitment to do whatever is necessary to protect the players so that this vital undertaking can continue.
Even with the 24-team NHL return, players could be walloped with a 20% escrow for the next two seasons and possibly a 10% pay cut, too. Those figures are WITH the 24-team tournament. Now, just imagine their paychecks without the summer blockbuster.
There’s a lot of reasons for everyone to make the NHL return happen; There is the love of country, love of the game, and self-preservation. This is the first bump in the road, and it will cause some fear, but look at the positives and look to the fixes.
The show can still go on. But let’s not have any more outbreaks, OK?
Update: Moments after publishing, the NHL released this statement, indicating thus far 11 players have tested positive:
NHL statement on Phase 2 testing. pic.twitter.com/2FBhgdbFsP
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) June 19, 2020