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Despite obstacles and questions, NHL and NHLPA forge on

As the NHL and its players' association continue to try to complete the 2019-20 season, their approach has been measured and rational and that's to be applauded. They're both asking the right questions of the right people, but can they really pull this off?
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Over the past little while, two things have emerged when it comes to the NHL and its return-to-play possibilities. The first is that it is crystal clear and beyond any shadow of a doubt that the league is desperate to get the 2019-20 season completed. The second is that sense of desperation is well-founded because this is going to take a near-miracle to pull off, particularly if the NHL insists on dying on the hill that sees them complete the 2020-21 season in its entirety.

Does that mean it’s impossible? No, it does not. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association are asking the right questions of the right people and what they’re hearing continues to give them hope that they can actually do this. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, one of Canada’s leading experts on infectious diseases, told that he believes the league’s idea to hold the rest of the season and the playoffs in three or four different locations, “(has) got legs. I think there’s real traction here.”

The NHL-NHLPA Return to Play Committee met Wednesday and, while there are no firm plans in place, it did acknowledge that it is, “looking ahead to Phase 2 of the transition period.” Phase 2 involves workouts consisting of small groups of players and, while no firm date has been set, the target date for that phase to begin is mid-to-late May. So in an absolute best-case scenario, small groups of players who elected to stay in the cities in which they play might be able to begin working out in about two weeks.

But there are still so many questions, so many obstacles and so many potential snags to overcome. It’s almost overwhelming, actually. But the league forges on in the hope that things will tilt in a positive way. Bogoch also told that the league and players should be prepared to deal with sudden, unforeseen circumstances that might push proposed dates even further back or scuttle the plan altogether. That’s a significant unknown when you’re trying to organize something on this mammoth a scale.

The players who elected to stay in the cities in which they play will likely be the first ones to be able to come to work, since those travelling will have to quarantine for two weeks upon their return. But there are a number of complications there, since the U.S.-Canada border is closed to all but essential travel and even provincial boundaries are being tightened. Consider the words of Ontario premier Doug Ford, likely the country’s most pro-business provincial leader, on Wednesday: “We don’t want people right now coming across the border. I love Quebecers. I love people from Manitoba, but stay home. The same goes for the U.S. as well, stay at home. When this is over, we welcome you with open arms, but we just can’t risk it.”

So, if everything unfolds ideally, players would be ready for a mini-training camp in June, followed by the completion of the regular season and the playoffs in July, August and September, with the 2020-21 season beginning as late as December, which would put it two months behind a normal regular-season schedule, which would necessitate a compressed season and the Stanley Cup final stretching into July. That could jam up the start of the 2021-22 season, which would also compress things, and further reduce the possibility of the league and NHLPA finding enough common ground to send players to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are a number of other obstacles to confront. The players have begun to express concerns about being away from their families for such an extended period of time, particularly players whose wives are expecting babies. If a player left to be with his wife for the birth of their child, would he have to self-quarantine again for two weeks upon his return? What would be the logistics of players and team officials being tested regularly and how would that look to the outside world? What if a player tests positive?

At this point, all we know is the league and its players are still in Phase 1 of the transition, which is where they’ve been since the league shut down seven weeks ago. There remain far more questions than answers and even if everything falls its way, finishing this season is still a longshot. But as Lloyd Christmas famously said to Mary Swanson in Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance? Yeah!"

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