Your heart may have skipped a beat as mine did. Florida Panthers President and CEO Matthew Caldwell may have let the cat out of the bag on Wednesday afternoon when he revealed during a conference call that plans for an NHL return in July likely includes several neutral sites and limited or no fans.
The limited fan participate concept is a new wrinkle and will be exciting to follow. How many fans could be fit into an arena if they are seated six feet apart?
Caldwell spoke to reporters on a conference call on Wednesday, and local TV/Radio host Andy Slater was the first to beam the news to millions of anxious hockey fans.
The NHL return to play scenarios have been discussed in multiple forms. Grand Forks, ND, was the first site to be mentioned because of its isolation and extraordinary Ralph Engelstad Arena. The league has also discussed Manchester, NH. New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu has reportedly lobbied the NHL to consider Manchester.
UPDATE: Sportsnet reporter Elliott Friedman reported that non-NHL sites are no longer being considered. ESPN reporter Greg Wyshinski confirmed it.
The NHL has been on hiatus (read coronavirus pause) since March 11. On Tuesday, Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin sounded optimistic to the point of expectation about an NHL return.
The Pittsburgh Penguins coaches have been preparing for an NHL return by studying up on the Philadelphia Flyers, according to Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has theorized it would take approximately two weeks for players to get into game shape after they return to the ice. NHL players have been asked to quarantine through the end of April.
There could be some benefits to the pause, too. The Philadelphia Flyers were 18-5-1 in their last 24 games before the pause, while the Penguins began to stumble. Penguins coaches and GM Jim Rutherford felt the extraordinary injury toll began to impact the club before the NHL season suspension.
Just in time for the Pens to likely get back Jake Guentzel. https://t.co/wCRKKRbdtC
— Julianne Pelusi (@JulianneWTOV9) April 22, 2020
Caldwell stressed the plan is not final, but such specificity points toward extensive planning and readiness to spring into action. We can only hope.