Slowly but surely, the NHL is inching closer and closer to a return.
The league released a 21-page memo Monday morning that tabs early June as the target date for “Phase 2” of hockey’s gradual resumption of play — with this latest step allowing for small group workouts in team facilities.
Phase 3 of the NHL’s plan would eventually entail a full training camp, while Phase 4 will feature a full resumption of play.
The detail-heavy document issued by the league sheds plenty of light on the “new normal” that NHL players, coaches and staff will have to adjust to in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The memo opens with a statement that, while announcing that target date of early June, does note that plans could be pushed back in case of any complications. While Phase 3 would require all hands on deck for full-squad training camps and practices, the memo stressed that taking part in Phase 2 is strictly voluntary.
The opening statement read:
“This memorandum, and the accompanying Protocol, sets forth the framework that will govern Players and Clubs in “Phase 2,” the transition period following “self-quarantine,” as Players are permitted to return to NHL Club training facilities for voluntary small-group individualized training activities (on-ice and off-ice).
Based on the current information available, we are now targeting a date in early June for a transition to Phase 2. However, it has not yet been determined when precisely Phase 2 will start or how long it may last. We are continuing to monitor developments in each of the Club’s markets, and may adjust the overall timing if appropriate, following discussion with all relevant parties. To better inform our decision-making, after reviewing the attached Protocol, we would like to hear from Clubs with respect to your ability to implement the required procedures and the estimated timing for your Club to be in a position to open up your training facility. As we have stated repeatedly, the health of the Players and Club personnel is our top priority, and that will dictate how Phase 2, and any progression thereafter, may evolve.
We again emphasize that Player participation in Phase 2 is strictly voluntary. In addition, 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.”
Here are a few highlights from the NHL’s comprehensive plan to get players back out on the ice and begin the ramp-up process to resume the 2019-20 season:
- Per the memo, a maximum of only six players can participate in these workouts at any one time, along with a limited number of club staff.
- NHL clubs in cities or states still viewed as COVID-19 hotspots might have additional holes to jump through when it comes to re-opening their facilities. The statement read: “This activity will be permitted only in those jurisdictions where the applicable health authorities have sufficiently relaxed local restrictions to permit such gatherings. Clubs whose local health authorities would allow for the reopening of Club facilities will be required to consult with and seek approval from the League prior to any reopening of Club facilities.”
- Even though participation in Phase 2 is voluntary, the memo notes that teams will be tasked with helping any player looking to travel back to their club city for these workouts. “Clubs should help to shall facilitate Player travel arrangements, to the extent permitted, to enable 2 Players who are not in the Club’s home city, to return to the Club’s home city as each Player may deem appropriate, in order to facilitate their ability to engage in Phase 2 activities.”
- For many of these individuals traveling back to their team’s city, 14-day quarantines will likely become a necessity: “Prior to resumption of small group activities, some individuals … traveling back to their Club’s home city may be required to serve a 14-day self-quarantine imposed by the local health authorities, regardless of their mode of travel (private or charter travel). Even if not imposed by the local health authorities, such individuals returning to the Club’s home city by public transportation, including commercial air or rail travel, must serve a 14-day self-quarantine period post-travel before engaging in training activities at their Club’s facility. In addition, Club Medical personnel may impose a 14-day quarantine on Players and Permitted Personnel returning to the Club’s home city from a high-risk environment, even if they are not traveling via public transportation. Guidelines for the designation of high-risk environments will be provided to Clubs by the NHL in consultation with the NHLPA as soon as practicable.”
- When it comes to testing, the NHL stressed to not deplete resources from those in desperate need of said resources: “As an over-riding principle, testing of asymptomatic Players and Club personnel must be done in the context of excess testing capacity, so as to not deprive health care workers, vulnerable populations and symptomatic individuals from necessary diagnostic tests.”
- As far as testing goes, “laboratory-based RT-PCR testing” will be administered to all players and team staff 48 hours prior to any individual returning to team facilities. If possible, these tests will be held regularly — with the memo hoping for “at least twice weekly and consistent with medically recommended intervals” during Phase 2. If testing is not available in that team’s city at the start of Phase 2, players and club personnel must self-quarantine for 14 days prior to entering the facility.
- “Each Club shall establish a process to record symptoms and conduct temperature checks on a daily basis, and not more than two (2) hours prior to each Player’s and Club personnel with “Player Access’s” entry to the Club facility.”
- In the scenario in which a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the memo notes that contact tracing will immediately be carried out in order to monitor who else might be at risk.
- In addition, a positive test for one individual might not require the entire team to quarantine: “In the Phase 2 environment of strict monitoring, testing (if applicable), regular cleaning and disinfecting, and adherence to the measures in this protocol, subject to any applicable local health regulations, it is not anticipated that an isolated case(s) of COVID-19 would necessitate wide-scale quarantine of a Club; however, testing of Players in the same Player’s training session and “Player Access” Club personnel may be appropriate, as determined by Club medical staff in consultation with the Club’s infectious disease consultant and local health authorities.”
- These small group workouts will primarily be used to just shake off some rust, with no coaches, skating coaches, other club employees or club contracted representatives allowed to participate in these “no-contact” practices.
- Coaches and Hockey Operations Personnel will be allowed to observe — but not participate in — the Player-only non-contact skates starting at a later date during Phase 2. The memo notes that two weeks after Phase 2 could be a target date.
- In addition, players can take part in weight training that doesn’t require a spotter, resistance training, cardiovascular exercises, endurance training and both rehabilitation and treatment for players with ongoing injuries.
- Players cannot “work out or skate at any public facility or other location, and may not organize any Player skates or group skates outside of the training sessions organized by the Club.”
- During these small group workouts, players must remain with the same group of players throughout Phase 2. If other groups take the ice after the first session is finished, they must appropriately socially distance at all times (6 feet apart) in the locker room.
- “Players shall be encouraged to shower at home wherever possible. Players must leave all workout clothing and equipment that is worn during their session at the facility for cleaning/laundering by the Club.”
- “Each Club will be permitted to have the same maximum number of personnel per small group session, which shall include any number of personnel from the following list, and no other personnel, per session:”
- “Face coverings (cloth or surgical-type mask) shall be worn at all times – other than while exercising -- when entering or leaving the Club facility and while inside the Club facility where social distancing cannot be maintained.” The memo notes that face coverings will not be necessary when players are exercising on the ice.
- Surgical masks and nitrile gloves must be worn by athletic trainers, physicians and strength & conditioning coaches at all times while working in close contact with players.
- Players shall avoid car-pooling or using public transportation to get to their team facilities during Phase 2. While players will be allowed to work out off ice (with social distancing enforced), the use of hot tubs, cold tubs, saunas and steam rooms are prohibited during Phase 2.
- “Players must use water bottles and lids that are permanently marked with their Player number or other means of identification. There will be no sharing of water bottles during practices. Penalty boxes will not have shared Gatorade bottles, but rather 12oz Aquafina bottles of water and 12oz bottles of Gatorade product that must be thrown out upon exiting the sin bin.
- “Clubs can provide pre-packaged meals in individual containers for each player, but cannot prepare larger meals for shared consumption.
- Washing hands frequently will be stressed, while hand sanitizer will be available through the facility. Areas of the facility must also be “thoroughly and completely cleaned and disinfected” if any individual not allowed access to these sites enters the facility.
- Even though players can get back on the ice, the memo stresses that players should still stay at home as much as possible and avoid physically spending social time together with teammates in close contact.
- “Each Club must appoint a Club Facility Hygiene Officer, who will be responsible for overseeing, implementing and ensuring compliance with all aspects of this Phase 2 Protocol. The Club Facility Hygiene Officer must be a nurse, occupational health and safety professional or infection prevention and control (IPAC) professional. The Club Facility Hygiene Officer shall consult with all necessary persons in handling these responsibilities, including, without limitation, the Club’s Medical Director, Athletic Trainer(s), Equipment Manager(s), the Club’s infectious disease consultant, arena cleaning personnel and security personnel. “
- Responsibilities of the Club Facility Hygiene Officer include conducting a facility tour with a Club Athletic Trainer, Team Physician and Club infectious disease consultant and communicating basic hygiene measures.
These new measures are far from anything we've seen before in terms of the amount of oversight and new precedence when it comes to training practices — but such measures are a necessary step when it comes to ensuring player safety and preparing all parties for hockey's potential return.
The NHL and NHLPA have made major inroads over the last week in terms of charting a course for hockey’s return — with the NHLPA Executive Board voting on Friday to authorize additional negotiations for a 24-team playoff tournament that would scrap the remainder of the regular season.