It was inevitable that an NHL player would test positive for COVID-19 at some point. Even people in peak shape have not proven immune to infection. Still, Friday was a scary day in the hockey world regardless. First came the news that multiple members of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization had tested positive and that the team had to temporarily close its training facilities, which had opened during phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play operation. Then came the Toronto Sun report that Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews had tested positive. The NHL stated Friday it had 11 positive cases after testing at least 200 players so far. In the days that followed, a report from The Athletic indicated plenty of players were nervous about returning to play.
But while some players are uncomfortable with the idea of coming back, others skew on the optimistic side – including Leafs captain John Tavares. Among the league’s player population, the members of the Return to Play Committee have been the ones most in the know on the NHL and NHL Players’ Association’s conversations with health officials. Tavares is one of those committee members. It’s been a role he’s filled with honor during the pandemic.
“I was excited that the PA reached out and thought it would be good to have me on board and would love (for me) to help,” Tavares said on a phone call Monday. “I tried to be involved in many different levels of negotiations, CBA topics or items over my career, and I felt it’s very important to be involved. I did some competition-committee stuff last summer for the first time, and considering this unique set of circumstances, this was something I did because of a passion for the game. When there’s something that you do every day and have done since you were since you were a kid, and all of a sudden you’re not able to do it because of a pandemic, you’re taken aback, and you hope you have that opportunity again. So to be a part of it and try to do the best we can to represent 700 players, and do what we feels right in terms of health and safety and for getting back to play, and trying to create the framework for that, it’s something I was excited about.”
Tavares, then, has continuously been abreast of the league’s progress in building out return-to-play scenarios. He’s been optimistic about the NHL’s chances of reaching phase 3 and beyond and, speaking Monday, three days after the Matthews news broke, Tavares’ outlook was still glass-half-full. Even if there are isolated stories of infections surfacing, for Tavares, what matters most is what the league is learning from the infectious-disease experts.
“Everything they’ve said has been inherently positive,” Tavares said. “Obviously we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so there’s concerns and issues that have to be addressed and talked about in dealing with the virus. But knowing the things they’ve said…obviously there are unique cases, whether it’s players or other people have different issues they’re dealing with. But I think generally what we’ve been told is, because of the health and the type of condition we’re in, the age group we’re in, our risk is as low as it can be in the general population.
“Also, especially the with framework the league and the PA have tried to create in consulting with all these experts and a lot of doctors and the health agencies – with us getting tested as much as we are and the protocols being put in place, I haven’t seen too many other businesses or other entities that have implemented such strict protocols and testing regimens that we have now that will only continue to get more rigid going forward. I feel pretty comfortable with where everything’s at.”
So far, it appears the NHL does, too. No changes or delays have been announced for phase 3 or 4 planning, and the league and NHLPA are still expected to make decisions on hub cities as early as this week. Positive tests are never a good thing, but players have not faced league-imposed social restrictions during phase 2. They’ve still been living their private lives and self-regulating who and what they’re exposed to. Under phase-3 conditions, the quarantine bubble would be stricter than it is now, even if it included exposure to family members.
“Certainly, you always have to be monitoring and preparing for the worst,” Tavares said. “But what we’ve been told by the experts and world health officials, everything they’re recommending, we’re more than capable of being able to come back and play as things continue to get better and improve. The other optimism I see is what’s gone on in other countries around the world that are a few weeks and steps ahead of us, especially in Europe, the soccer leagues in how they’ve handled it with their return to play. It seems there’s been some pretty positive progress. Some of those countries were hit pretty hard by the virus.”
So it’s too early to declare the setbacks last week significant threats to the return-to-play plan. If teams reach phase 3, operating in controlled training-camp quarantines, and cases still pop up among the players, then the league will have a significant problem.