The NHL went into its return-to-play plan knowing positive tests for COVID-19 were almost certainly inevitable.
The hard data is starting to come in.
The league announced on Monday there were 15 confirmed positive tests out of the 250 players who have reported to the teams’ practice facilities for voluntary workouts.
The NHL began Phase 2 reopening – voluntary, small-group workouts at the teams’ facilities, on June 8. Phase 3 – formal training camps – are scheduled to open on July 10 if the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association can finalize and ratify all aspects of the return-to-play format.
The NHL is also expected to announce – perhaps as soon as Tuesday – the two hub cities that will each host 12 teams in a quarantined bubble for Phase 4, the resumption of games. Chicago, Las Vegas, Edmonton, Los Angeles and Toronto remain as candidates.
The league paused its season on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic with 189 regular-season games remaining.
“As of Monday, June 29, the NHL has had in excess of 250 Players report to Club training/practice facilities for optional participation in Phase 2 activities,” the NHL said in a statement. “There have been in excess of 1,450 COVID-19 tests administered to this group of Players. Those tests have resulted in a total of 15 Players returning confirmed positive test results for COVID-19.”
The NHL had previously announced 11 other players not skating at their respective team facilities had also tested positive for COVID-19.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were forced to temporarily close their practice facility on June 19 after three players and additional staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The team was able to reopen its building five days later.
“All Players who have tested positive have been self-isolated and are following CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Health Canada protocols,” the NHL said in its statement. “The NHL will continue to provide regular updates on the number of tests administered to Players and the results of those tests.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview with ESPN on June 15 the league was prepared to deal with isolated cases of coronavirus.
“Obviously, for any sport, if you have a major outbreak, it’s going to change everything,” Bettman said. “But we’re being told than an isolated case or a couple of isolated cases shouldn’t interfere with the plans and we should be able to move forward.”
Up to that point, 10 unnamed NHL players had tested positive for COVID-19, five from the Senators and three from the Avalanche in April and one each from the Bruins and Penguins earlier this month.
During that interview, Bettman said the league would test all players and members of each team’s 50-person traveling party in the sequestered hub cities on a daily basis, estimating between 25,000-30,000 tests will be administered.
The NHL’s return-to-play format includes 24 teams. The top four teams in each conference receive an automatic berth in the playoffs – though they will play a round-robin series to determine seeding – while the other teams participate in a best-of-five qualifying series.
The Islanders, seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference, will face the 10th-seeded Panthers while the No. 11 Rangers will meet the sixth-seeded Hurricanes.
The four playoff rounds will all be best-of-seven series and the teams will be reseeded for the conference semifinals and finals.
There were originally 10 candidates to host the games as hub cities, including Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh and Vancouver.
Las Vegas and either Edmonton or Toronto are considered the favorites to be picked as hub cities.