NHL, play­ers nav­i­gate de­tails of re­turn

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL TRAIKOS mtraikos@post­media.com twit­ter.com/michael_­traikos

The key word is op­tional.

When the NHL is­sued guide­lines to the NHLPA on Sun­day night for its ex­pected tran­si­tion to Phase 2 of re­turn­ing to play next month, the over­rid­ing mes­sage was ex­plicit: when the league opens its rinks, player par­tic­i­pa­tion is “strictly vol­un­tary.”

That means that play­ers are not re­quired to re­turn to the team­based cities and skate with their team­mates. They can re­main where they have been spend­ing the past two months, and con­tinue work­ing out on their own, or with play­ers from an­other team.

“We again em­pha­size that player par­tic­i­pa­tion in Phase 2 is strictly vol­un­tary,” said the memo, ob­tained by Post­media News. “Clubs are not per­mit­ted to re­quire play­ers to re­turn to the club’s home city so they can com­plete a quar­an­tine re­quire­ment in time to par­tic­i­pate in Phase 2.”

Of course, af­ter more than two months in iso­la­tion, who re­ally wants to spend an­other month skat­ing on your own? Well, it depends on where you’re liv­ing.

For play­ers who are out­side of the coun­try they play in — ei­ther in North Amer­ica or in Europe — stay­ing put has the ad­van­tage of avoid­ing the manda­tory 14-day quar­an­tine upon cross­ing an in­ter­na­tional bor­der. Af­ter all, there’s no point in rush­ing back if you have to spend two weeks locked in­side again.

“Tech­ni­cally, they don’t have to come back to their fa­cil­i­ties,” said player agent Dan Mil­stein. “I al­ready have a num­ber of (Florida-based) clients who are say­ing they’re go­ing to prac­tise in the Fort Lauderdale fa­cil­ity. I don’t see my guys go­ing to their cities un­til later. One said he would go there on June 15.”

An­other agent said the sit­u­a­tion of tran­si­tion­ing into Phase 2 isn’t un­like when teams hold op­tional skates at the end of the sum­mer. At first, it might only be lo­cal play­ers who at­tend. But as it gets closer to the start of train­ing camp, more play­ers be­gin fil­ter­ing in.

In other words, we might not see full ros­ters un­til the league de­cides on a date for start­ing the post-sea­son. Even then, don’t be sur­prised if some wait un­til the first day of train­ing camp.

“That’s a good anal­ogy,” said Lewis Gross, who rep­re­sents Toronto’s Ras­mus Sandin and Wil­liam Ny­lan­der, who are in Swe­den and the U.S., re­spec­tively. “Ev­ery­body’s sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent. You have to quar­an­tine, no mat­ter what. Ras­mus has ice in Swe­den ... so he won’t be com­ing back in the next week or so.”

Per­haps the big­ger is­sue re­mains player safety.

Just be­cause the league is pre­par­ing for Phase 2 and has set­tled upon a 24-team post-sea­son for­mat that will hope­fully be­gin in July or Au­gust, that doesn’t ac­tu­ally mean the virus has abated. Peo­ple are still con­tract­ing COVID-19 at an alarm­ing rate. Go­ing to the gro­cery store — never mind shar­ing a train­ing fa­cil­ity with play­ers and sup­port staff — car­ries sig­nif­i­cant risks.

“I think ev­ery­body is anx­ious to get back,” said player agent Don Mee­han, “but ev­ery­body is con­cerned over the safety reg­u­la­tions.”

“We have some vets who are con­cerned,” said Mil­stein, who has many clients in Europe, where the so­cial dis­tanc­ing rules are dif­fer­ent than in North Amer­ica. “How are they go­ing to get to the city where they play? Where are they go­ing to eat? ... There are a lot of ques­tions that need to be an­swered.”

Most play­ers will take this cue from the league as a sign things are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion. From there, ex­pect a snow­ball ef­fect.

Vol­un­tary or not, hockey play­ers won’t stay idle or iso­lated for long. As any hockey coach knows, if you want to give play­ers a break from prac­tice, the last thing you do is make it op­tional. Play­ers don’t know the mean­ing of the word. All it takes is for one to start skat­ing and soon enough the en­tire team will be out there.

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