The excitement that scattered throughout the NHL universe recently was warranted, but there's still one undeniable truth: it's going to be a long road back.
Progress was made in the return to NHL action after the league proposed a 24-team playoff format that was approved by the NHLPA board. It was fun and intriguing to read through the proposed format, and sobering to realize that fans are not part of the equation at these games once the sport returns.
But all of these expectations and proposals are moot until the NHL actually returns to play. The good news is that the league has revealed its plans to begin the first wave of return sometime in early June, according to a memo that became publicly available via the NHL's official website. It is available in its entirety here.
It's not going to be a fast-paced and riveting process from the looks of it, but the precautionary measures within it are necessary and it will be intriguing to see them play out as an indication of how a full-fledged return could work out.
According to the memo, the league is aiming to begin Phase 2 in early June, while no precise start or end dates have been laid out. As with all other aspects of return to professional sports, everything remains fluid given the volatility of the pandemic and the political, financial and health-related factors that come into play.
Testing will be required in order for the players to return to the facilities, and this is part of the fluidity of the return. These tests will only be performed should they not disrupt what is deemed Public Necessary Testing, and the memo details that these measures will be taken "so as to not deprive health care workers, vulnerable populations and symptomatic individuals from necessary diagnostic tests".
Along with testing, symptom and temperature checks will be held regularly.
Once players are cleared to return in this phase, they will be able to partake in very limited practices. The practices won't be team-wide, as only six players maximum will be allowed to be at a team facility at any given time. The players will not be required to wear a mask while on the ice, but they will be while in the facility. The official wording of the policy on the memo is as follows.
"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."
Watching the Bundesliga, for instance, has shown the players taking part in the game without a mask, but wearing facial coverings while on the sidelines. Though the memo doesn't indicate whether or not this practice will continue once official play gets started again, it seems unlikely that they'd enforce masks and face coverings after it wasn't a part of their practice regimen.
The memo stresses that this phase of return is not mandatory for players who feel uncomfortable with the protocol, as well, stating that the league "emphasize(s) that Player participation in Phase 2 is strictly voluntary."
As expected, access to shared commodities like transportation, food/beverages, supplements, and saunas/spas will be severely restricted at this time and unavailable for the most part. At a minimum, the memo suggests that facility-wide cleanings take place before reopening, at the end of each practice session, and at the end of each day.
A Club Facility Hygiene Officer will be appointed to each club in order to supervise that all protocol is being followed in order to ensure the safety of the return to play, which has been something deployed in other sports leagues, as well.
The league left the memo open to feedback, giving teams the opportunity to reply so that the NHL is sure of its "ability to implement the required procedures" and go forward with the plan.