World Championship feel to NHL re-start
by Andrew Podnieks|01 AUG 2020
Rogers Place in Edmonton – here during the Edmonton-Calgary exhibition game – will be one of the venues of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs and a few months later of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship.
photo: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images
Return to Play. Hub. Bubble. Secure Zones. These words are part of the NHL’s new terminology as it tries to finish its 2019/20 season in the coming weeks. The first games will be played today.

And for hockey fans who have followed the IIHF’s World Championships or any ice hockey tournament at the Olympics, the NHL’s plans have a familiar feel. Two host cities – hub cities. Two and three games in a day at each venue. And testing – not doping exactly, but swabbing.

Yes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and for the first time in the history of the sport the most important games of the year are being played in the hottest and most humid days of summer.

The NHL last played games on 11 March before announcing a cessation to the season the next day, and the current re-launch of the league will see the Stanley Cup finals start on September 22 and extend possibly as late as October 4, a time that has always represented the opening of a new season!

At the same time professional teams prepare elsewhere for the new season. While NHL teams played exhibition games before the playoff start this week, teams from the Russian KHL played pre-season games at the same time.

Many cities vied for the right to be one of the two host cities for the re-start, but the worrisome trend in the wrong direction in the U.S. of COVID-19 spread meant the NHL honed in on two Canadian cities which have done an impressive job of “flattening the curve” – Toronto and Edmonton. 

Players in Toronto are sequestered in two hotels used exclusively by the NHL, the venerable Royal York and the much newer Hotel X. In Edmonton, players are at four hotels within a stone’s throw of the arena (JW Marriott, Sutton Place, Delta, Events Plaza).

In the first week of training camp, there were but two positive tests, and in the second week zero. So far, the NHL is doing a near perfect job of keeping things “clean” for players, officials, staff, and organizers.

These are the “secure zones” the players must confine themselves to until their season is over, although the “bubble” extends to a few other areas where players can exercise or have a bit of fun outside their hotel rooms. 

Each team is allowed a travelling party of 52 individuals (including an expanded roster of 30 players), the approximate number of names allowed on the Stanley Cup, by the way. There are 24 teams, 12 in each city, and after three exhibition games on Tuesday after a 140-day “pause” of epic proportions, the NHL is about to ramp up to serious hockey very quickly.

The Toronto-based teams playing at Scotiabank Arena represent the Eastern Conference and include: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Islanders, Toronto, Columbus, Florida, Rangers, and Montreal.

The Edmonton-based teams playing at Rogers Place all play in the Western Conference and include: St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas, Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Arizona, and Chicago.

The 31-team league is without seven teams whose season has ended thanks to weak regular seasons before the shutdown: Buffalo, New Jersey, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa, and Detroit.

The staff at the two hub arenas are among the best in the world. Toronto has hosted the 2016 World Cup and two recent World Junior Championships, in tandem with Montreal, so hosting multiple games on any given day is nothing new.

The same can be said for Edmonton which hosted the World Juniors in 2012 with Calgary and is scheduled to host the next World Juniors this coming December.

The first games on Tuesday were weird, to say the least. The arenas were empty, seating covered in NHL drapery. The Philadelphia-Pittsburgh game in Toronto started with players from both teams interspersed on both blue lines to show solidarity for Black Lives Matter. The evening Toronto-Montreal game featured the “home team” Habs using the Leafs’ dressing room and a moment of silence observed on ice prior to the anthems in memory of Eddie Shack. And, yes, there were anthems, despite the absence of 20,000 screaming fans.
Over in Edmonton, there was just one game, a classic Edmonton-Calgary battle that saw Connor McDavid score two McDavid-type goals, but without the cheering. After few more games, the real fun begins on Saturday.
The players arrive at the arena wearing masks, and during the TV timeouts the ice cleaners wore masks and gloves. Between periods and games, the benches are sterilized by a dedicated crew wearing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment)

Players will be tested for COVID-19 daily, with results available within 24 hours. The tests will be done at private clinics and paid for by the NHL, ensuring no citizens of these communities will be at risk for not being able to get tests of their own because of the high demand from the NHL.

Teams will have one hour after games to clear out the dressing room to allow the areas to be disinfected.

When the season gets going on 1 August, there will be two kinds of games being played simultaneously. Because the traditional playoff format sees 16 teams play four rounds of best-of-seven series, this year is different because the regular season never finished. As a result, the top four teams in each conference will play a round robin (i.e., three games each) to determine seeding for the first round of the playoffs. 

In the Eastern Conference, those teams are Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia. In the Western Conference, they are St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas.

At the same time, the teams ranked 5-12 in each conference will play a best-of-five series to determine which teams advance to the conference quarter-finals, the traditional first round of the playoffs. The series are as follows:

Toronto hub/Eastern Conference
Pittsburgh (5) vs. Montreal (12)
Carolina (6) vs. NY Rangers (11)
NY Islanders (7) vs. Florida (10)
Toronto (8) vs. Columbus (9)

Edmonton hub/Western Conference
Edmonton (5) vs. Chicago (12)
Nashville (6) vs. Arizona (11)
Vancouver (7) vs. Minnesota (10)
Calgary (8) vs. Winnipeg (9)

Another thing you may know from the Worlds is that the following rounds will be re-seeded using the seeding numbers rather than following classic, pre-determined brackets.

The two kinds of games will also have two kinds of overtime formats. The round-robin/ranking games will feature regular-season OT procedures, including a shootout, while the playoff best-of-five will feature the usual unlimited OT for which the NHL is famous.

Once this round is over, August 9, all teams have the next day off, a day when the NHL will conduct the final stage of the NHL lottery to determine which team gets the first overall draft choice (also known as the Alexis Lafreniere lottery).

The semi-finals and Cup finals are scheduled to be played in Edmonton, and with six of the 24 teams Canadian based there is hope north of the border that one of these six can win the trophy for the first time since Montreal in 1993.

The 2020 NHL Entry Draft will take place right after the Stanley Cup is won (scheduled for 9-10 October), and the tentative start for the 2020-21 season is December 1. It’s all an ambitious and hectic schedule for the remainder of 2020.

For those players who didn’t make it to either hub city, that means more than eight months without a meaningful game. For those who make it deep into the 2020 playoffs, it means a very short “summer” before a new season starts, one fraught with uncertainty, one certainly without fans. But for now, the focus is on the safety of the players, keeping them isolated and symptom free, and awarding a most unique and historic Stanley Cup ever contested.