The National Hockey League will open its extended Stanley Cup playoff competition Saturday in the Canadian bubbles it created in Edmonton and Toronto to avoid effects of the coronavirus. And one thing is certain: Major League Baseball it is not.
The NHL tournament sans fans could last until Oct. 4, when a Stanley Cup winner is expected to be crowned. That’s just at the time baseball is hoping to embark on its extended 16-team playoff format in an environment when many medical experts have warned that the virus will be in another wave of spread.
“This entire process we’re about to embark upon is one of the most unique and challenging endeavors any of us has ever been involved with,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “And first and foremost, and you’ve heard us all say this over and over again, health and safety is driving all our decisions and all of our attention and focus. This is the primary aspect of what we have to accomplish over the next couple of months.”
Here’s how the two sports have differed in their approach, according to their own collectively bargained health and safety protocols:
The NHL is testing Group 1 players, on-ice officials and club officials every day. MLB is testing players and on-field staff every other day.
In the NHL, all those designated in Group 1 had to go through a 14-day transition phase, including sheltering at home, avoiding interactions with non-family members, wearing masks, maintaining social distance from others, and they also must pass three COVID-19 tests before entering either of the bubbles. Anybody leaving for personal reasons is subject to 14 days of isolation to get back in. The hotels are part of the bubble.
Even Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, may not be able to attend because of Canada’s quarantine rules.
“We’re on the back burner,” Bettman said. “We currently don’t have the requisite approvals to enter Canada or the bubble.”
MLB tested players for the first time when they arrived at camps in late June. One negative then allowed a player to practice with the team. A player who tests positive must have two negative tests before he is allowed to rejoin his club.
The NHL has held two extensive video conference calls with media to explain their procedures—calls that included, among others, Bettman, Daly, union officials such as Don Fehr and Mathieu Schneider, and league physicians. The health and safety protocols have been made public, unlike those from MLB and the MLB Players Association.
“There was extensive planning that went into this program with a number of different experts,” said Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, the NHL’s chief medical officer. “A lot of the work we’ve done has actually been with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the provincial governments and the local health authorities. And we’re going to continue working with them as we watch this unfold.”
MLB could have chosen the bubble approach at spring training sites during the middle of May when the weather was not as hot and COVID-19 was not spreading rapidly as it is now in Florida and Arizona. Instead, MLB and its players’ union engaged in a finance and health protocol dispute that lasted until the end of June.
By that time, Florida and Arizona weren’t viable and MLB chose to play without fans in 29 of 30 home parks, save Toronto. The Canadian federal government declined to allow players to traverse the border without isolating for a mandatory 14 days. The Blue Jays are planning to play many of their 30 “home” games at a Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, when traveling to hotels in non-controlled environments began, more than half of the Miami Marlins 30-man roster tested positive. MLB is investigating how the club became infected apparently during an exhibition series in Atlanta against the Braves last week.
Suspended from play since their series against the Phillies concluded on Sunday, the Marlins remain sequestered in a Philadelphia hotel. Their games have been postponed through next Thursday.
The Phillies, who also had four games against the New York Yankees postponed, have now had a home clubhouse attendant and coach test positive. All activities at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia were cancelled “until further notice,” the club said, putting on hold a three-game weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the bubble approach wouldn’t have worked for his sport.
“I think the decision we made with respect to the bubble was the right one,” Manfred said. “We’re different than other sports. We would have had to have multiple locations probably just in order to have enough facilities to make it work.”
After extensive research, that’s the way the NHL decided to make it work. The 12 Eastern Conference teams are playing the opening three rounds in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena and the 12 Western Conference teams are competing in Edmonton’s Rogers Place. The semifinals and Stanley Cup Final are slated for Edmonton over Toronto.
“Both buildings are great. Both cities are great. Both hubs are certainly going to be much more than adequate. They’re going to be terrific,” Bettman said. “But we just felt in terms of the needs for the Stanley Cup Final, we would be more comfortable with the resources available to us in the Edmonton building.”
And then there’s the availability of procuring quick test results. Putting the hubs in Canada was a no-brainer. In the Great White North, the disease has been limited to 117,473 cases and 8,965 deaths, while in the U.S., cases are at 4.45 million with more than 151,000 deaths because of the pandemic.
For the NHL, Group 1 traveling parties for each team are limited to 52 people, including 31 players, for a total of 1,248 daily tests.
The labs selected—Dynalife in Edmonton and LifeLabs in Toronto—are expected to be able to handle and turn around results in 24 hours without affecting the local communities.
During the tournament, the NHL will not announce whether a particular players tests positive nor the nature of any injuries to protect privacy. But the league did note that only two players tested positive during two weeks of training in the 24 home arenas. Baseball has now had almost 100 players test positive since intake testing began, and public disclosure depends on the decision of individual players.
“We did not want to embark on a strategy that was going to take away protective equipment or testing from vulnerable populations and healthcare workers,” Dr. Meeuwisse said. “As we built out our strategy that was really in the front of mind for us.”
The NHL, like MLB, had only one shot at getting this right.