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Isolated cases of COVID-19 shouldn't be problem when NHL restarts, Gary Bettman says

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a news

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a news conference in San Jose, Calif., on Jan. 25, 2019. Credit: AP / Ben Margot

The NHL believes it can withstand a player testing positive for COVID-19, or even a handful of isolated cases, if it is able to resume games.

But there is a limit.

“If there’s one positive test — again, this will be under the strict guidance of the medical people — that person will be isolated,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview with ESPN’s Mike Greenberg aired on Monday night. “And we’ll be monitoring anybody, through contact tracing, that was in close proximity. Obviously, for any sport, if you have a major outbreak, it’s going to change everything. But we’re being told that an isolated case or a couple of isolated cases shouldn’t interfere with the plans and we should be able to move forward.”

Bettman was one of six professional sports commissioners interviewed for SportsCenter’s “Return to Sports” special.

Bettman said the NHL will test all players and members of the 24 teams’ sequestered, 50-person traveling party daily. Bettman has estimated between 25,000-30,000 COVID-19 tests will be administered.

The NHL paused its season in response to the pandemic on March 12 and, since then, 10 unidentified players have tested positive.

In April, five Ottawa Senators players and three from the Colorado Avalanche were announced has having tested positive. The Boston Bruins announced on Friday an unidentified player has tested positive but had subsequently tested negative twice and remained asymptomatic.

The Pittsburgh Penguins announced on June 4 one of their players had tested positive.

“Everything we’ve been doing has been a joint effort \[with the NHL Players’ Association\] to make sure that we’re adhering to the protocols, which will be very strict,” Bettman said.

The NHL has yet to set a date for the resumption of games. But it does have a format. Twelve teams from each conference will be assigned to a hub city, with those two sites reportedly set to be announced on June 22. Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver are the candidates.

Teams were allowed to open their practice facilities on June 8 for small-group workouts. No more than six players are allowed in the building at once to train and coaches cannot supervise the sessions. Formal training camps are set to open on July 10.

Bettman said the NHL is talking with the Canadian government about easing that country’s mandatory 14-day quarantine period for visitors. If not, that would eliminate the Canadian cities as hub sites and it’s believed some or all of the six Canadian teams that would resume play might move their training camps to the U.S.

“If the players would have to quarantine for 14 days between training camp and going to the hub, that wouldn’t work,” Bettman said.

The seventh-seeded Islanders will face the 10th-seeded Florida Panthers and the No. 11 Rangers will face the sixth-seeded Carolina in best-of-five qualifying series for a berth in the 16-team playoffs.

Each of the playoffs’ four rounds will be best-of-seven series, as usual. But instead of a bracket format, teams in each conference will be reseeded on a round-by-round basis.

Bettman said the return-to-play format “won’t be too gimmicky.”

“I think everybody can feel good, based on the combination of the play-in round and the way we’re going to run the playoffs, that this will be a full competition which will bring out the best in our teams and our players,” Bettman said. “The Stanley Cup champion will be deserving of that crown and the most storied trophy in all sports.

“We will create an environment that will be exciting, will be entertaining, will be consistent with a competition that has integrity.”

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