Damien Cox: Max Domi isn’t alone in wondering if the NHL game plan is safe enough

Canada

Max Domi has it right. For all hockey players, executives and fans.

Let’s just wait and see.

Domi, who has Type 1 diabetes, is going to pause for a week or so before deciding whether he wants to be part of the NHL’s ambitious restart effort. This is smart. It may not be the back-to-business message the NHL wants to see going out to the hockey public at a time when 24 of the league’s 31 teams are revving up operations south of the border, where there is no national plan to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

But it’s the logical one.

There has been a little too much celebration, and self-congratulation, for the plan that the NHL and its players association have cooked up. Nothing wrong with trying, mind you. But when you have a business plan in the middle of a deadly pandemic that is driven by pressing financial imperatives rather than medical priorities, you’re going to have a business plan with holes.

If money didn’t matter, and television contracts didn’t matter, there would be no reason to even attempt to complete the 2019-20 playoffs. But those things do matter, particularly the TV commitments.

Moreover — and this probably hasn’t been discussed enough — the NHL as a business is under severe duress. Consider that a year from now NHL teams will still likely not be able to fill their arenas with customers, and you start to understand that a flat salary cap may turn out to be the least of the money concerns for some teams.

Yes, the NHL has to try to reopen. That’s understood. But the players don’t have to participate, and a trickle of NHLPA members have already made that decision. Domi, probably among others, wants to give it a little more time before making the best possible judgment on the health risk, which is entirely sensible on his part although it may not make Montreal fans happy. (On the other hand, Habs fans hoping that the Canadiens lose in the qualification round and then have a shot at the first pick in the draft, likely Alexis Lafrenière, may see Domi’s absence as a bonus.)

There are very good reasons for NHL players to be wary, including:

  • All 24 teams are going to train in their home cities for the next two weeks. That’s 24 “bubbles” and 24 sets of variables. Multiply that by the 800 or so individuals involved, plus friends and families, and it’s pretty clear the next fortnight may decide whether the NHL’s reboot even gets off the ground.
  • Bubbles are not 100 per cent guaranteed to be virus-free. Far from it. With unaffiliated workers leaving the premises and returning, you can’t have a total lockdown. You can only construct a best-case scenario.
  • Individual cities may be making progress in the battle against coronavirus, but the NHL will be importing athletes from some of the world’s hot spots to Toronto and Edmonton when the “hub” part of this program begins. Toronto will host athletes from Florida, which is probably the worst place in the world to be right now if you are terrified of this virus. That’s where the Lightning and Panthers are training. Edmonton, meanwhile, will be bringing in the Dallas Stars, with Texas nearly as hard hit as Florida right now.
  • We don’t really have any idea how full-contact hockey, or a training camp, will react to even one positive case. We know one nail salon can infect hundreds in a very short period of time. Given that the NHL and NHLPA have declined to consider precautions such as full face masks for all players and a total moratorium on fighting and scrums, this is an open question that would continue into the competitive portion of this restart.
  • On top of all this, there is the uncomfortable layer of secrecy the NHL and the union are insisting upon. That they are being allowed to use two Canadian cities for their business without being totally open and forthcoming about infections is an outrage. And why? Why would it be problematic to be known as a person who is infected by a flu virus? It comes with no stigma.

The NHL just seems intent on controlling the outflow of information on infections. Imagine the outrage in Toronto, for example, if 10 players suddenly test positive in the hub. According to a TSN report, the NHL wants to report coronavirus cases as players “not fit to play.” That’s it.

When you combine this with the pressure on the league to get its business going, and the fact the league and union don’t have a specific agreement on the number of positive tests that might force postponements or even the cancellation of the entire effort, there’s a lot at stake here.

No wonder the NHL wants to tightly control the information.

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As we’ve seen with Toronto FC down in Florida — where the club’s opening match at the MLS is Back tournament was postponed for the second time on Sunday — league operations may be stop-and-start when the games begin. Plans may have to change quickly. The PGA had hoped to bring back golf fans for the first time at the Memorial tournament this week in Ohio, but that had to be scrapped.

These are incredibly uncertain times, which means even the most carefully conceived plans are vulnerable. Domi recognizes that, and it was useful that the Canadiens also expressed their concerns for his health so that his final decision is viewed as a joint effort between the player and team.

Hockey may indeed be back on your television screen in less than three weeks. But to be on the safe side, let’s just wait and see.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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