Concerns about Canadian coronavirus restrictions could push hockey south of the 49th parallel into the U.S. this summer.
Seven of the 10 locations the NHL has zeroed in on to hold playoff games if it resumes are American cities not restricted by Canada’s 14-day mandatory quarantine upon arrival. As 24 teams figure out how to squeeze an expanded roster and limited personnel into one of two “hub” cities, the Vancouver Canucks are even considering relocating training camp to the U.S. if the situation doesn’t change in the coming weeks.
“It’s something that we’re thinking about, but also too we just want to give it a few more days just to see if something is going to change,” Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said Wednesday. “The perfect scenario we’d like to use our facilities. We’re probably going to have 30, 32 guys here and we have great facilities for our players, so we would like to do that first and foremost. But we’ve talked about moving it off site.”
The Canucks are in the same boat as the NHL, which is in no rush to choose among the 10 finalists: Las Vegas, Columbus, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton. It will in the next few weeks select two or three to host Eastern and Western Conference brackets and then the Stanley Cup Final by factoring in government regulations, the frequency of COVID-19 in the community and availability of testing.
“We want to just be in a position to, in real time, have lots of options once we understand what the state of play is at the time we need to make the decision,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We could pick one or two locations, but that might, if we made the decision today, not turn out to be as good a decision as one that we make three, four weeks from now because things are continuing to evolve in all of the places that we play.”
The league told GMs on Tuesday to plan for a roster of 28 skaters and unlimited goaltenders for training camps that won’t begin before early July and games without fans several weeks later. Each team will have a personnel cap of 50 in the city where games are played, and the wheels are turning even before facilities are reopened for voluntary workouts.
Before the NHL commits to where games could be held, officials are planning for multiple scenarios. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly is engaged in regular dialogue with the U.S. and Canadian governments and medical experts to determine what the health and safety landscape might look like this summer.
“That doesn’t mean we get to look for any type of exception or any type of favoritism,” said Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, who’s on the Return to Play committee. “I think we just want to continue to follow the guidelines that are set out for us and do the best that we can. Hopefully things improve to a point where those things could be possibly loosened up, not just for us but for all of society.”
Because testing is lagging in Ontario and British Columbia’s government isn’t expected to make exceptions for the NHL, Edmonton could be Canada’s best hope. Oilers GM Ken Holland said with an attached practice rink and hotel and nearby restaurants, “Edmonton checks off in my opinion all the boxes.”
Except that Daly said Canada’s 14-day quarantine would be a nonstarter. The NHL is already facing what Winnipeg forward Andrew Copp called a “time crunch” to fit in effectively five rounds of playoffs, and if the focus shifts solely on U.S. locations, Las Vegas and Columbus appear to be the front-runners.
Beyond the abundance of hotels and sparkling new rink the Las Vegas Strip can offer, the arena district in Columbus could serve as an effective bubble for the NHL.
“Whether it’s from the building or the facilities surrounding the building to accommodate hotel rooms, meals -- whatever it needs to be, we’ve covered it,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “Also the state of Ohio is in pretty good shape as far as flattening the curve and providing a safe environment that way. The transportation is easy if needed between facilities in Columbus, and we have a lot of rink facilities that we can use for the amount of teams that would be in the tournament.”
There wouldn’t be much of a home-ice advantage without fans, and the league is considering moving the “home” team to the other city. But that isn’t stopping NHL executives from pitching the ability to host playoff games.
“We have a state of the art facility in Cranberry, the Lemieux Center, and the medical center attached and we have plenty of hotels and everything like that,” Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said. “We meet the criteria but we understand there’s other cities that do, also.”
The two biggest surprises on the NHL’s list were Chicago and Los Angeles. The Blackhawks and Kings each said they were honored to be considered.
But not being a coronavirus hotspot and having a surplus of testing are key elements to the decision. Bettman said the league won’t interfere with an area’s medical needs or take up tests from the general public, and those in hockey hoping to land games know that.
“None of us would agree to a situation where we are taking away testing from people that need it,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said. “Several weeks from now, we would really have to be in a position where the health care community and the government community of whatever country we’re in, whatever city we’re in are in agreement that this can be done and it can be done in a respectful, conscientious way.”