As crisis engulfed Major League Baseball on Monday, the NHL sat comfortably after one full day since teams arrived at their Canadian hub cities for the restart of the season.
The NHL reported zero positive cases out of 4,256 administered tests, including to more than 800 players, in the last week. That’s in stark contrast to MLB, which canceled two games on Monday after the Miami Marlins endured a COVID-19 outbreak.
Things can change quickly. All it takes is one needle to pierce the NHL’s bubble in Edmonton or Toronto and send hockey into the same predicament baseball is facing.
But hockey has gotten off to an undeniably smooth start with growing confidence that the 24-team postseason scheduled to begin on Saturday will go off without a hitch. Count the Golden Knights among the believers.
“It’s locked down pretty tight and they’re doing a really good job,” Vegas forward Alex Tuch said on Monday. “I’d be surprised if anything like (what happened in baseball) happened.”
The sports playing in “bubbles” have provided a blueprint for how games can be played safely.
Major League Soccer reported zero positive tests from its hub on Sunday after early issues that resulted in two teams being sent home. The NBA also said it had zero positive tests from its bubble, also in Orlando. The WNBA, which is set up in Bradenton, Fla., has seen two players test positive since teams reported.
MLS is in the middle of its tournament while the WNBA began on Saturday with the NBA planning to resume on Thursday.
The NHL is operating under similar protocols to those leagues with teams quarantined into a hub. Teams will play in Edmonton or Toronto until they are eliminated or win the Stanley Cup.
NHL exhibition games are scheduled to begin Tuesday ahead of the qualifying round. The Golden Knights face the Arizona Coyotes in an exhibition at 7 p.m. Thursday before starting their round-robin at 3:30 p.m. Monday against the Dallas Stars.
“I think there were a lot of skeptics, and I’ll be honest with you, I had some skeptical days through the pause where you wondered if you’d ever get to this point,” Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think the fact that we’re all here now, you see everybody skating and game prep starting to ramp up, you feel like you’re in a safe environment.
“It looks to me like we’re going to get this done, and that’s an exciting feeling.”
The biggest difference between the NHL (and the other bubble leagues) and MLB is the lack of travel, which lessens the chance of exposure. MLB has taken plenty of precautions, but they are still interacting with hotel and stadium staffers at a minimum, sometimes in coronavirus hotspots. It’s a big reason why the Canadian government refused to let the Blue Jays play their home games in Toronto, forcing the team to relocate this season to Buffalo.
The NHL purposely avoided areas with a high prevalence of COVID-19. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the numbers in Las Vegas played a part in it being passed over as a hub city, and commissioner Gary Bettman said it was not a coincidence that the postseason is in Canada, where the pandemic is more under control.
Instead of traveling across the continent, players are confined to one of two hockey campuses in Canada. They are restricted from mingling with other teams for the first few days and have their own designated workout and lounge spaces.
“It feels safe, it feels secure,” DeBoer said. “You wouldn’t know you’re in a bubble, to be honest with you.”
The players are in a strange situation not knowing how long they’ll be in one hotel room, but so far they seem to be embracing it. They’re already getting into the routine of hanging out in the rooms, going to practice and heading back to the hotel.
“Other than just the little extra precautions and wearing the masks I would say it was a very normal travel day,” defenseman Alec Martinez said of Sunday’s trip from Las Vegas to Edmonton.
Those precautions are a reminder that this tournament is happening while the world copes with a pandemic. Wearing masks around a hotel isn’t normal. Taking daily temperature and virus checks aren’t either.
But the NHL is doing what it can to let players focus on hockey. The league went as far as putting pictures of players’ loved ones in their rooms.
Forward Mark Stone said he was greeted in his hotel by a photo of his fiancée and dog. He spent a moment looking at the picture, then unpacked his clothes, unrolled the putting mat he brought to help pass the time and turned on Netflix.
Stone, like the rest of the Golden Knights, hopes he’s in Edmonton for months. The hope is that it’s the play of the team, and not a virus, that determines the length of stay. It’s really early but so far, so good.
“First practice was fun to get out there,” Stone said. “Fun to take your mind off everything else that’s going on and just be a hockey player for a change.”