Here we go. On Thursday, the National Hockey League and the NHLPA announced they agreed to begin Phase 3 training camps for all teams active in the upcoming NHL playoffs, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, on July 10. The move added certainty and timelines to the unprecedented situation, which has forced the league to essentially create a wild 24-team NHL playoffs format for the Stanley Cup held in two hub cities.
However, there are still unanswered questions and details which both sides must agree to before officials can officially drop the puck for Phase 4 and the start of the Stanley Cup chase.
Where are the hub cities?
What are the full and official safety protocols?
Where will the Canadian teams hold training camp?
How will the NHL Return to Play financially affect the players next season and beyond?
“It’s uncharted territory with a situation like this. Guys come from Canada, Europe. What if someone gets sick? [We] just want to keep our eye on the ball and make sure we get a fair deal,” Patrick Kane said via video chat on Thursday. “Then we’d be ecstatic to come back.”
Kane is on the pessimistic end. In fact, local media reports painted the Chicago contingent as more cautious than other teams. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence. Another team that appears less than enthusiastic about the NHL playoffs is the other 12th seed, the Montreal Canadiens.
There are a few more details the two sides must reconcile, but some of the handwringing is misplaced. The NHL and NHLPA effectively agreed to the second season weeks ago when they affirmed the framework for the 24-team NHL Return to Play. The two sides decided to walk down the aisle, and they now stand at the altar.
Both sides are invested in making it happen.
Some of the details, such as training camps for Canadian teams, could be difficult, but not so impossible as to derail the process. There is a lot of work remaining, but the two sides have come too far to get tripped up now.
The season is going to happen unless underlying safety details dramatically change. Players have already committed themselves to this, and unlike Major League Baseball, the primary concerns are the sport and finishing the season. Both sides realize the grand finale will benefit both sides…and the sport.
As Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said, “…Make our sport proud.”
Pittsburgh Hockey Now reported a mix of sources on Thursday morning, which ranged from excitement about the Pittsburgh becoming a hub city to downplaying the possibility.
Adrian Dater of Colorado Hockey Now reported on Wednesday that Las Vegas was a clear front-runner in the Western Conference.
Later on Thursday, Pittsburgh Hockey Now learned more about the process. Even though the Alberta and British Columbia provinces have made strong pitches to be hub cities, Dater’s report about Las Vegas, combined with the current obstacles of the Canadian government’s required 14-day quarantine rules, seems to eliminate chances that Edmonton or Vancouver could be an NHL hub city.
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston said the NHL has cleverly amended their argument against forcing athletes to quarantine for an additional two weeks. Johnston said the NHL is arguing to include the arenas as part of the quarantine location. If the NHL suggestion is adopted, players could include their time at the arena as part of the quarantine.
Now, here’s the twist. The same league sources who downplayed Pittsburgh as a hub city to PHN played up a stealth possibility: Toronto.
Toronto was on the initial list of 10 potential NHL hub cities, so the league has done the necessary work to vet the city. If the NHL is persuasive, and the Canadian government amends the quarantine rules, the league could place games in the hockey capital of the world. The source indicated there was hope in the league office to see it happen. Games in Toronto would satisfy Canadian networks, which are co-rights holders with the U.S. networks, and it would balance the U.S-Canada dynamic.
It still seems like a long shot, and under current parameters, the PHN report on Thursday doesn’t change. Asking a national government to make an exception puts the government in a no-win position. If they buckle, the national policy wasn’t that important. If they don’t soften their stance, they lose the chance to host hockey and the millions of dollars that come with filled hotel rooms and catered meals.
As we noted, the situation is still fluid, but time is running out. Getting a government to change course and move quickly seems a tougher play than splitting the defensemen the deking the goalie.