What we’ve learned so far about sports attempting to come back in the U.S. amongst a pandemic (and the balloon-handed handling of it) is that no model has proven safe. The “bubble” model didn’t protect MLS from having their Orlando bubble contaminated to the point that Dallas FC is being isolated there and teams are afraid to fly in at all. NWSL so far has been able to get their tournament off without disaster, though that was after one whole team had to beg out of it. The “home base” model for MLB has already fallen apart, with the Nationals and Astros canceling team workouts today and the A’s not even having had a full one yet because the chosen lab has not been able to run out results of tests since last week. The NBA has had several camps shut down already before they’ve even headed to Florida.
So the NHL being under the impression that it’s got this code cracked via bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto is utterly hilarious if it didn’t, y’know, mean people’s lives were in danger, because this is the goddamn NHL after all. As if a league that has handed out fines amounting to change in the couch cushions for serious hits to the head has got a handle on keeping people safe from a killer virus. Totally adds up. This is a league where Patrice Bergeron played with a hole in his lung. So of course they’re diving head first into a setting where there’s a disease that puts multiple holes in your lungs.
The points of the plan don’t sound all that different from the ones you’ve heard from other leagues. Every team will be allowed a delegation of 52, including a cap of 31 players. The clear highlight of this is that each team is required to bring a social media creator, presumably to keep putting forth “Everything is fine! We’re having tea!” propaganda from the league and teams while players anonymously text Pierre LeBrun about how miserable and scared they are and everything south of the border continues to burn.
Where the whole thing falls apart, at least in theory, is that every single member of the traveling parties, as well as hotel staff and rink employees and whoever else is involved with this will be tested every day. That’s up to 2,000 tests a day from the two bubble sites combined. Keep in mind that MLB’s testing plan didn’t even make it through three days before it collapsed.
And like everyone else, the league has outlined isolation and testing processes for those who test positive, but none of it matters until the rubber hits the road. They make mention of 10-day isolation before even getting re-tested for anyone who initially test positive, but with each team bringing their own doctor, do we think they can stick to this when play returns? If MItch Marner tests positive before Game 4 against Columbus, do we really think the Leafs will hold him out? Jordan Binnington tests positive for the Blues at the beginning of the second round, are they really going to turn things over to Jake Allen? (That’s if the Blues even make it to Edmonton).
The plan also outlines a contact tracing protocol if a player or staff member tests positive, but that’s pretty much everyone on the team. It states “for more than 15 minutes within six feet or less in the 48 hours leading up to the positive test.” So for players, they can argue that with all the skating around at practice it wasn’t 15 consecutive minutes, and given the incubation period of the virus, two days very well might not be enough of a window. And again, let’s watch this happen when the games get going, if they get going.
The NHL is also providing for “social excursions” outside of each bubble, i.e. team golf outings, basically. But again, the crux of this plan depends on every single player and every single staff member adhering to the protocol and the bubble, and it’s not like former Mossad agents will be patrolling the grounds to keep everyone inside except for these designated outings. Ask the Orlando Pride how that went for everyone.
The plan states severe penalties for anyone who leaves the bubble, such as major fines and strict, two-week quarantine as well as a loss of draft picks for the team. But again, let’s see them do it when it will really make a difference.
Each side is allowed to call for pulling the plug on a game or games if it feels the environment isn’t safe. Except it isn’t outlined what that constitutes. Both the NHL and NHLPA have said that one positive test, or even a group of positive tests, for a team won’t automatically remove that team from competition. With each team bringing 31 players, would it really take more than 11 positive tests for a team where it couldn’t ice 20 players to be removed? Would the NHL let a team skate with just 18 or 19 guys? It has done it for salary cap problems in the past.
This seems no less doomed to fail than any other plan. Which doesn’t mean it won’t go through with it no matter what happens, because this is a hellscape and the world’s a nightmare.