Is it safe for the NHL to bring its postseason to Las Vegas?

Hundreds of players and staff members could descend on the Strip next month

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Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press via AP

Vegas Golden Knights’ Nick Cousins, right, celebrates a goal as Calgary Flames’ Mark Giordano, left, and Andrew Mangiapane skate away during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Calgary, Alberta.

Thu, Jun 18, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The NHL is likely to announce the hub cities for its reformatted postseason any day now with Las Vegas continuing to be regarded as one of the leading candidates.

Under normal circumstances, hosting the postseason would be a cause for excitement with the best hockey players in the world descending on a 3-year-old hockey city to fight for the most revered trophy in the sport.

It’s more complex than that right now, though. The coronavirus forced a pause in the season, and the league is planning to resume, despite the pandemic showing little sign of slowing down, with recent increases statewide and nationally.

In a strange way, however, the fact that the coronavirus is already prevalent in Southern Nevada makes it less dangerous to drop 12 teams and hundreds of players into T-Mobile Arena.

“The presence of those players doesn’t increase the level of transmission in this community because the transmission is already established,” said Fermin Leguen, acting director of the Southern Nevada Health District. “Bringing players and people here from other areas of the United States to play hockey here really is not increasing the level of risk that’s already in this community.”

The NHL’s reset includes a 24-team postseason with two sets of 12 teams split into two locations where all games will take place. The league has narrowed the list of possible cities to 10 choices — seven American, three Canadian — including Las Vegas, a longtime frontrunner, presumably for the Western Conference.

Games would be played without fans in attendance, and teams would be limited on the number of staff permitted.

Social distancing will be crucial in these hubs, Leguen said. But he conceded that, as a contact sport, there’s no way to prevent players coming into close contact with each other as part of the game. That’s why rigorous testing and screening processes need to be established throughout the facility.

The NHL knows as much. The league’s plan is for daily testing of players, swabbing them when they leave the arena at night with the anticipation of having a result before they leave their hotel in the morning. Commissioner Gary Bettman estimated the NHL could be doing 25,000 to 30,000 tests over the course of the postseason.

If Las Vegas is indeed selected over the next week, the timing may still seem odd.

This week was one of the worst in Nevada for new virus cases. On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 379 positive tests, shattering the previous high of 295 set May 22. There have been 12 days with 200 or more positive cases during the pandemic through Tuesday’s reporting. Half of them have come since June 8. The good news is deaths related to the virus are reaching their lowest points.

Testing has increased, and with more tests come higher raw numbers. But the positivity rate (the percentage of positive tests) and hospitalizations have been creeping in the wrong direction for the past week, bucking a downward trend that began after a peak in April.

“There is obviously a higher level of coronavirus in our community today than two weeks ago,” Leguen said. “And that’s a reason for concern.”

On a team level, there’s only so many precautions the Golden Knights can take. The NHL is in phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol, which includes small group workouts at team facilities.

Players are tested twice weekly and limited to working out with five other player at a time. They must wear masks when they’re not actively exercising or on the ice.

Forward Ryan Reaves, who has taken part in the workouts, said he understood the protocols but senses “a little tension with the situation” that’s unavoidable in the current climate.

“To be honest, I feel a little too safe,” Reaves said. “But that’s just the rules that the NHL put in place.”

Players are scheduled to move into phase 3 on July 10, which would entail mandatory tests as training camps get ready for the return of games at a to-be-determined date. Franchises are responsible for their own testing and safety right now, but the league will take over once Phase 4 kicks in — when teams report to their assigned hubs.

“I believe that one of the reasons (the NHL has) held off naming the two hubs is just to have the most current and up-to-date information available when they make that final decision,” Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “We trust that they’ll make real good decisions that are based on safety of the players and the people in the organizations involved.”

McCrimmon doesn’t have much, if any, say in what the NHL decides, just like if the league chooses Las Vegas and sends the Golden Knights elsewhere. In a statement to the Sun, the NHL did not directly address the rising national cases of COVID-19.

“The ability to provide a safe and secure environment for our players, team and league personnel will be one of many factors that will be considered in selecting our two hub cities as well as in the ultimate decision as to when we return to play,” according to a league spokesperson.

Part of the consideration for which cities are chosen includes the local governments, which seem unlikely to be a hurdle here. Sports have already returned to Las Vegas with the UFC hosting events at its Apex facility and Top Rank Boxing putting on cards at the MGM Grand.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Phase 2 reopening plan released May 29 explicitly stated that some sporting events would be permitted for broadcast purposes without live audiences.

Sisolak’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment about specifics of working with the NHL.

There’s an inevitable risk of infection as businesses and economies begin to reopen. Nevada is no different, and positive test counts are likely beginning to rise because of Memorial Day gatherings, protests and casino openings.

The NHL Playoffs might soon be among those big events. Even without 18,000-plus fans packing T-Mobile Arena, that’s still plenty of players and staff coming from all reaches of the continent to Las Vegas. But officials say there’s no danger of their presence spreading the virus further into an area that’s already infected.

“If we were having this conversation at the point when there is almost no coronavirus cases in Clark County, then the consideration would be different, because then the potential risk of reintroduction of transmission is increased by bringing people who have been exposed to the virus in other areas," Leguen said.

“But talking about today, there is an established local transmission of coronavirus in Clark County, so they really are not adding to that risk," he said.

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