Rising coronavirus cases could preclude Las Vegas from hosting NHL postseason

T-Mobile Arena may no longer be a favorite for NHL’s Phase 4

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John Locher/AP

Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, left, defenseman Brayden McNabb (3) and Robin Lehner (90) celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL hockey game Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Wed, Jul 1, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Brayden McNabb sounded like a man prepared for the bubble life.

Few details have been released on the specifics of the NHL’s plan to restart its season. The only certainty is that teams will be split into two hub cities where they would live and play for as long as it takes to award the Stanley Cup.

Las Vegas is reportedly one of four finalists — along with Chicago, Edmonton and Toronto — and reportedly the preferred American host city. But as COVID-19 cases rise in Nevada and the NHL, players like McNabb know that if this is going to work, they won’t be getting out much by the time the games start.

“Once we get into the bubble, I think there’s probably no safer place to be is my opinion,” the Golden Knights defenseman said in a Zoom call this week. “It’s basically just going to be just your team and your trainers and your coaches. You’ll get pretty tight by the end of it. 

“I’m assuming we’re not going to have much contact with the outside world once we’re into the bubble.”

Las Vegas has been viewed as a lock for weeks, but the longer the league waits, the more chances seem to diminish. Recent rumblings suggest the NHL is instead pivoting and strongly considering concentrating the games in the two Canadian cities.

Nevada’s coronavirus curve hasn’t flatted recently with the majority of the case concentration focused in Clark County.

The last four days of data have produced the four highest numbers of raw cases, and while that’s partly attributable to a rise in testing, the rate of positive tests has also increased.

Over the last seven days, 16 percent of tests have produced a positive, more than triple the World Health Organization’s goal of 5 percent, according to state data.

The NHL is currently in Phase 2 of its return, which permits small group workouts at team facilities. If players participate, they are tested twice per week and must wear masks when not actively exercising.

It’s optional for now, as players may instead choose to work out away from the team, but most Golden Knights are participating in Las Vegas.

No restrictions exist on players outside of the facilities currently, however, so there’s no guarantee they are shielded from the virus. The NHL has announced that 15 of 250 players in Phase 2 have tested positive with 11 more outside of the league protocols.

Phase 3 is scheduled to commence on July 10, which would be mandatory, full-squad training camp. The league did not say whether the positive tests among its players would alter those plans, only to reporting, “all players who have tested positive have been self-isolated and are following CDC and Health Canada protocols.”

So what if a player is uncomfortable playing hockey in a pandemic? Other leagues have procedures in place if players choose not to play.

Five NBA players, for example, have opted out of participating in the league’s Orlando restart. Four MLB players have declined to show up to their home markets when training camps open.

It’s possible that the NHL will include a provision regarding opting out when it announces its full plan for Phase 4, a return to games. No player has yet publicly said he won’t play, and according to a report from Sportsnet, it’s unlikely anyone does.

McNabb also acknowledged as much.

“I haven’t heard anything. I’ve been on a couple of calls and that hasn’t really been a thing,” he said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about what would happen and it’s a different situation for sure. It’s a little bit out of the normal and obviously there is health risks, for sure. That’s something you’ve got to be careful with and I think the NHL and especially our staff has done an outstanding job of following the protocols and making we’re safe, especially when we’re getting into the rink.”

The NBA has the most comprehensive “bubble” plan that the NHL figures to emulate. Players will report to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and remain there for as long as their team is still playing. The NBA will control the facility, strictly monitoring who goes in and out.

If Las Vegas were chosen as a hub city, there would be challenges to making it work and questions needing answers.

T-Mobile Arena is within walking distance of several hotels with the capacity to house 12 teams and staff, but would players be confined to just the hotel and the rink?

Where would all the teams practice, how would they get there and how controlled would the facilities be?

Are players barred from mingling on casino floors and restaurants? How would that be enforced?

What if a player tests positive? Is he confined to his room or allowed to go home? How could an outbreak among a whole team be prevented?

All these questions might be answered in advance, and yet there’s still another big one: Is it worth the risk?

Nevada has reported 3,216 new cases in the last four days. In the last four days of reported data, Ontario and Alberta — the provinces that house the two Canadian contenders for hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton — reported 945 combined.

Health experts said it shouldn’t matter. Fermin Leguen, the acting director of the Southern Nevada Health District, said a hockey tournament won’t increase the level of transmission because the virus was already here. Caleb Cage, the state’s COVID-19 response director, said all the criteria set forth by the state would have to be met for a sporting event.

That includes agreeing to no fans and approval from a relevant state agency.

Nevada almost surely won’t stand in the way of the NHL if it selects Las Vegas as a hub city. There’s no doubt that in normal times, Las Vegas would be a premier destination to host the playoffs. In a pandemic, though, there’s still a lot to be decided. That decision should be coming soon, one way or the other.

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