COVID-19

Panthers’ Stralman wonders if NHL’s return to play would be worth the risks

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As the NHL pushes for a return to play, it’s fair to ask: “Is it worth it?” Chances are, plenty of players are quietly wondering that. Credit to Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman for actually saying it, though.

Stralman provided refreshingly candid insight to The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) on Monday. It’s worth getting into Stralman’s specific risks, but also his wider views on the situation.

If you’re like me and you wonder about the risk-reward ratio of returning to play as COVID-19 uncertainty lingers, then you might risk injuring your neck nodding along with Stralman’s takes.

“I think you should be concerned,” Stralman told Smith. “There are so many ways to look at this thing. I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”

[Stralman’s Panthers would face the Islanders in the Qualifying Round. More on the 24-team setup here.]

Stralman among NHL players at greater risk during a possible return

Stralman, 33, faces greater risks considering his lengthy battle with bronchiectasis, a lung disease where airways are damaged, preventing sufferers from clearing mucus from their lungs. Smith notes that Stralman just got off medication for bronchiectasis last year; judging by this 2014 report from NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, Stralman needed pretty heavy-duty medication:

Dr. Dimango had Stralman start a course of treatment tailored for people with cystic fibrosis. It featured a dosage of antibiotics three times per week. Stralman doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, but the treatment has staved off his infections.

It indeed seems reasonable if Stralman worries about how his “body will react” if he contracted COVID-19. The Canadian Lung Association notes that, while people with lung diseases aren’t more likely to contract the virus, they are more likely to suffer from a more serious case if they do contract it.

Would Stralman be forced to return if he doesn’t feel safe? Gary Bettman allowed some wiggle room for players with underlying risks, but also said he expected able-bodied players to return to action. In a hockey culture where you’re expected to play through pain, would Stralman be comfortable sitting things out for what could be an extended period of time?

So, yeah, it’s understandable that Stralman is worried. And he’s almost certainly not alone, even if others are silent (or have even bigger issues on their minds).

Voicing concerns about wider risks

To be clear, Stralman didn’t merely express his personal concerns to Smith in an interview very much worth reading. Stralman voiced plenty of big-picture worries about how others will be involved.

Stralman wonders about not just players involved, but workers in buildings being exposed to extra risks. Would running two “hub cities” with 24 teams require medical resources being diverted from those who need it the most? The NHL’s said all the right things about avoiding that, yet it’s still fair to wonder if it might happen.

“I think the main thing is safety,” Stralman said. “And I don’t think we should be obliged to be prioritized over people that actually need it way more than we do. There are so many people in this world right now that are going through some really tough times. I think all hockey players and owners should consider themselves fairly lucky to be where they’re at.”

In hoping for a return to play, there’s been a focus on if the NHL can pull off. And, to be fair, even those questions aren’t easy to answer. Yet, above all else, should the NHL return, at least in the near future?

That’s a tough call, so it’s refreshing that Stralman is willing to ask such questions.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Governor approves activities for pro teams in New Jersey

Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Tuesday that as long as the NFL’s Giants and Jets and the NHL’s Devils follow health and medical protocols, they could open training camps or even hold competition.

The NFL’s preseason and training camps wouldn’t begin until midsummer — teams are doing virtual workouts in place of the usual on-field activities because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the NHL is planning ways to complete the 2019-20 season. Should those plans include the Devils, they now can reopen their training facilities.

“Professional sports teams in NJ may return to training and even competition — if their leagues choose to move in that direction,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

“We have been in constant discussions with teams about necessary protocols to protect the health and safety of players, coaches, and personnel.”

A Jets spokesman said: “We are working closely with Gov. Murphy’s office, the league and our medical staff to establish prudent, health and safety measures for our staff and players. Based on those guidelines, we will begin to open our facility using a phased approach at a time that is the most practical for our operations.”

The Giants echoed those sentiments and said: “With today’s announcement by the governor, we are finalizing our plans to reopen the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. We will continue to have as many employees as possible working remotely. For employees who need to return to work at our facility, we expect to begin that process next week, and we will do so in a systematic and safe way that adheres to the state’s guidelines and NFL protocols.”

Isolating away from family a ‘hot topic’ as NHL plots return

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Young and single, Thatcher Demko has plenty of time on his hands, with little to do. Quarantining to play hockey wouldn’t be a problem for the Vancouver Canucks goalie.

“I don’t have too many roots,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve been living pretty much out of my car for the most part for the last six, seven years just going from place to place.”

Older players disagree.

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk doesn’t think players with children would be interested in spending lengthy stretches away from their loved ones amid the pandemic. And neither does Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who bluntly said: “It doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time.”

It’s a reality players might have to face for the NHL to resume play, something Toronto’s Kyle Clifford calls a “hot topic” among players. While the NHL and its players’ union are discussing a 24-team playoff format to resume the season, figuring out how to incorporate family time in a potential quarantine environment is one of many hurdles to clear.

“For sure that’s a big thing,” said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk, one of the players on the Return to Play committee and a new father. “No one wants to be away from their family for months on end, and everyone is aware of that with who’s on this committee.”

From Dubnyk and Rask in the NHL to Major League Baseball players Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman, pro athletes have voiced concerns about spending significant time away from family. When baseball was considering a containment bubble in Arizona to play, Zimmerman — whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in June — said he wouldn’t accept not seeing them for four or five months.

“I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Not many people have to go through that, nor should they.”

The NHL, like the NBA, does not face the challenge of trying to complete an entire season. But even an abbreviated return calls for coordinating 600-plus players at different stages of their personal lives.

“I think it’d be easier for guys without families or single guys to kind of go on quarantine and enjoy that process as much as you can,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “But it would be tough being a father myself. It would be tough to live through FaceTime in that situation. But you have to weigh the pros and cons on each side and what’s important for you and your family.”

The league was exploring various locations that could host games, including Edmonton, Columbus and Las Vegas. They could be big enough for players to bring family members with them, or the format might allow for a break in the schedule for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.

“You’ve got to kind of create this bubble, but if families are coming in and out, then I don’t know,” said Carolina’s Jordan Martinook, who has a year-old son he doesn’t want to be away from for more than a month at a time. “That kind of compromises the bubble. I don’t know if they would say your family’s got to be with you from day one the whole time or they can’t come if you’re in the bubble.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said league officials are “sensitive to the issue and are focused on finding a solution that works for the players.”

New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, whose Devils might be off until the start of next season, said he trusts NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his staff to make a decision in the best interest of as many players as possible. Those waiting on the possibility of playing, like Washington’s Beck Malenstyn, hope there’s a resolution that weighs isolation from family members against the risk of them getting infected.

“I think there’s probably a happy medium between the two,” Malenstyn said. “You definitely don’t just want to close the door on your family in a time like this. But it’s also you have to look at it if we were going to take that step to go back and play, it’s the safety of your family to probably not have them around, either, just with the exposure to everything.”

Added Demko, the Vancouver goalie: “I think everyone’s going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think that there is a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”

NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans

NHL return to play Phase 2
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The NHL announced a plan to enter Phase 2 of its return to play protocols, with hopes of taking the step by early June. If you enjoy staggeringly detailed documents, then this is your tonic.

To clarify, Phase 1 involved players and others entering self-quarantine. Phase 2 involves small groups of players (the league specifies six players, with a limited number of staff) returning to team facilities for noncontact skating sessions.

The league didn’t detail exactly when Phase 2 will begin (again, the goal is “early June”). Early June indicates that the NHL could theoretically begin Phase 2 as early as next week, though.

It’s not clear how long Phase 2 might last for the NHL, either. As detailed as the league’s plan is, there’s still an air of “to be determined.” The NHL didn’t publicly announce dates for Phase 3 (training camp) or Phase 4 (a return to play) in the memo.

Some more details on how the NHL plans to handle Phase 2

Depending upon how a player arrives at team facilities, it might be necessary to go into 14-day quarantine before entering team facilities. The NHL’s testing guidelines get a bit granular, so Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston shares some details that simplify and clarify certain aspects:

The memo also shares how players from other teams can access facilities if they live nearby.

The NHL emphasizes more than once in the Phase 2 memo that safety and fairness are top priorities. The league also includes this explanation around testing:

As an overriding 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 (“Publicly Necessary Testing”).

Again, there are still plenty of other details to iron out before taking the next steps. Consider some of the major issues still dangling:

  • To reiterate, the NHL still must determine the actual start time for Phase 2. We don’t yet know how long it will last.
  • Phase 3 (training camp) and Phase 4 (actual return to play) must also be determined.
  • When will the 2020 NHL Draft happen? How will the draft lottery be determined?
  • The NHL and NHLPA agreed upon a basic layout for a 24-team playoff format. There are still plenty of specifics to iron out, though.

So, we’ll see how a lot of this goes. Stay tuned at PHT as more develops.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”