The NHL has reached the “play” portion of its Return to Play plan: games in two Canadian “hub cities” beginning Aug. 1. Teams reported to those cities July 26 and will remain in isolation for as long as they are required to be there. They played one exhibition game each prior to the start of the pre-Stanley Cup playoffs schedule, which consists of a qualifying round and round-robin play taking place simultaneously.
Hockey is making its official return to the ice more than four months after the 2019-20 season was suspended March 12 because of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The league and its players agreed to resume play in four phases, with Phase 4, the current phase, being the last step.
Here’s what you need to know about the NHL’s “bubble” and hub city setup:
What is the NHL bubble & hub cities?
The NHL “bubble” consists of limited areas in two hub cities — Edmonton and Toronto — where team personnel will be required to remain as the league tries to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Each club is taking up one floor in a designated hotel. Other access areas include arenas, practice facilities, dining destinations (hotel restaurants and bars, and conference areas where food is brought in) and “other demarcated areas (indoor and outdoor),” according to the league’s Phase 4 protocols. Individual access will be decided by the person’s role with the club.
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Where is the NHL bubble?
The NHL bubble, unlike the NBA bubble in Orlando, is in two hub cities: Edmonton (for Western Conference teams) and Toronto (for Eastern Conference teams). Games will be played at Edmonton’s Rogers Place and Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena without spectators.
NHL bubble & hub city teams
The NHL has brought 24 teams, 12 in each conference, to the hub cities. The top four teams in each conference based on regular-season records will compete in a round-robin to determine their seeding for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Teams in the fifth through 12th positions in each conference will compete in a best-of-five qualifying round to determine the remainder of the playoff field.
Below are the 24 teams in the NHL bubble and hub cities based on the standings at the time NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared the regular season over on May 26, or 2 1/2 months after the season was suspended on March 12. Positions were set by points percentage, since not all teams played the same number of games.
NHL standings 2019-20
NHL qualifying round matchups
(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
(7) Islanders vs. (10) Panthers
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
(5) Oilers vs. (12) Blackhawks
(6) Predators vs. (11) Coyotes
(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild
(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets
NHL teams not in the bubble & hub cities
Seven teams did not advance to the qualifying round in the NHL bubble and hub cities based on their records. Their 2019-20 seasons ended when the NHL’s Return to Play plan was approved. The non-bubble/hub city teams are the Red Wings, Senators, Devils and Sabres in the East; and the Sharks, Kings and Ducks in the West.
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Number of people per team in the NHL bubble & hub cities
Teams were allowed to bring 31 players and as many as 52 people (including ownership, executives, coaches and staff) total to their hub city hotel. Traveling parties will stay together at team hotels, but each person will have their own room and no one can visit another room. Guests will not be allowed inside the NHL hub city bubble until the conference finals in September in Edmonton, where family members can reunite with players.
COVID-19 testing in the NHL bubble & hub cities
According to NHL.com, players will undergo testing and temperature and symptom checks daily during Phase 4. People who are in the bubble (the league is calling it the “secure zone”) must wear protective masks whenever they are outside their hotel rooms, but they can remove them while exercising, playing, eating or drinking. Social distancing must be maintained “in all circumstances in which it is feasible,” per the league’s protocols.
Any member of a team’s traveling party who develops COVID-19 symptoms is required to inform a club representative immediately and then self-isolate. The club’s physician will examine the person and then decide in tandem with the club’s infectious disease specialist and the league’s event medical director whether to conduct PCR testing. Club personnel are also required to inform medical personnel if they come into contact with anyone they suspect has COVID-19.
In the case of symptoms and/or a positive test, the person will be isolated in their hotel room if they are in it at the time, or be sent to a designated isolation area if they are outside their room within the secure zone and medically stable. If they are “acutely ill or medically unstable,” then medical personnel “shall arrange appropriate clinical follow up, treatment and care.”
As for when those who test positive can exit isolation after a positive test: It’s complicated. The abbreviated version:
Asymptomatic persons: Ten days after the first positive test if the person has remained asymptomatic; or after two consecutive negative respiratory tests in a period of 24 or more hours.
Persons who display symptoms at the time of testing or during self-isolation: No fever or respiratory symptoms over a 72-hour period, if the person has been in self-isolation for at least 10 days since the onset of symptoms; or two consecutive negative tests plus a resolution of any fever (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and an improvement in respiratory symptoms.
Physicians treating people in isolation must “conclude that the person no longer presents a risk of infection to others, and that it is medically appropriate (given individual and local circumstances) to terminate the requirement for self-isolation.” Further, “the termination of the isolation requirement must be consistent with applicable local public health regulations or other requirements.”
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Can a player leave the NHL bubble & hub cities?
Yes, but only in a limited number of cases, per NHL.com: medical reasons, extenuating circumstances (such as the birth of a child or an illness or death in the family), or a family event such as a wedding. When a player returns to the secure zone, he will be quarantined in his hotel room and then need to test negative at least four consecutive times over a four-day period.
What happens if a player leaves the bubble without permission?
The player can be removed from the secure zone upon returning, or he can be quarantined for 10-14 days and subjected to “enhanced testing and monitoring.” Teams can be fined and/or lose draft picks for unauthorized departures from the bubble.
NHL bubble & hub city schedule
A maximum of six games per day will be played in NHL hub cities during qualifying round and round-robin competition, with tripleheaders in each arena. The qualifying round begins Aug. 1; round-robin play begins Aug 2. This segment of the NHL’s return to play will end Aug. 9.
Below is a day-by-day schedule for the qualifying rounds and round-robin seeding games in the NHL bubble and hub cities through Aug. 9.
NHL qualifying round & round-robin schedules
(All times Eastern)
Saturday, Aug. 1
Rangers vs. Hurricanes, Game 1, in Toronto, noon
Blackhawks vs. Oilers, Game 1, in Edmonton, 3 p.m.
Panthers vs. Islanders, Game 1, in Toronto, 4 p.m.
Canadiens vs. Penguins, Game 1, in Toronto, 8 p.m.
Jets vs. Flames, Game 1, in Edmonton,10:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 2
Coyotes vs. Predators, Game 1, in Edmonton, 2 p.m.
Flyers vs. Bruins, round-robin, in Toronto, 3 p.m.
Blues vs. Avalanche, round-robin, in Edmonton, 6:30 p.m.
Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, Game 1, in Toronto, 8 p.m.
Wild vs. Canucks, Game 1, in Edmonton, 10:30 p.m.
Monday, Aug. 3
Rangers vs. Hurricanes, Game 2, noon
Jets vs. Flames, Game 2, 2:30 p.m.
Capitals vs. Lightning, round-robin, in Toronto, 4 p.m.
Stars vs. Golden Knights, round-robin, in Edmonton, 6:30 p.m.
Canadiens vs. Penguins, Game 2, 8 p.m.
Blackhawks vs. Oilers, Game 2, 10:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 4
Panthers vs. Islanders, Game 2, noon
Coyotes vs. Predators, Game 2, 2:30 p.m.
Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, Game 2, 4 p.m.
Flames vs. Jets, Game 3, 6:45 p.m.
Hurricanes vs. Rangers, Game 3, 8 p.m.
Wild vs. Canucks, Game 2, 10:45 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 5
Islanders vs. Panthers, Game 3, noon
Predators vs. Coyotes, Game 3, 2:30 p.m.
Lightning vs. Bruins, round-robin, 4 p.m.
Avalanche vs. Stars, round-robin, 6:30 p.m.
Penguins vs. Canadiens, Game 3, 8 p.m.
Oilers vs. Blackhawks, Game 3, 10:30 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 6
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, Game 3, TBD
Hurricanes vs. Rangers, Game 4*, TBD
Capitals vs. Flyers, round-robin, TBD
Canucks vs. Wild, Game 3, TBD
Flames vs. Jets, Game 4*, TBD
Golden Knights vs. Blues, round-robin, TBD
Friday, Aug. 7
Islanders vs. Panthers, Game 4*, TBD
Penguins vs. Canadiens, Game 4*, TBD
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, Game 4*, TBD
Predators vs. Coyotes, Game 4*, TBD
Canucks vs. Wild, Game 4*, TBD
Oilers vs. Blackhawks, Game 4*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8
Rangers vs. Hurricanes, Game 5*, TBD
Canadiens vs. Penguins, Game 5*, TBD
Bruins vs. Capitals, round-robin, TBD
Jets vs. Flames, Game 5*, TBD
Blackhawks vs. Oilers, Game 5*, TBD
Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, round-robin, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9
Panthers vs. Islanders, Game 5*, TBD
Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, Game 5*, TBD
Flyers vs. Lightning, round-robin, TBD
Wild vs. Canucks, Game 5*, TBD
Coyotes vs. Predators, Game 5*, TBD
Stars vs. Blues, round-robin, TBD
* If necessary
The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin after the conclusion of the qualifying round and round-robin play. All four rounds of the playoffs will be best of seven. The Stanley Cup Final is tentatively set to begin Sept. 22 and end as late as Oct. 4.
The NHL Draft (Oct. 9-10) and free agency (which could start as late as Oct. 13) will follow the completion of the Stanley Cup Final. The 2020-21 NHL regular season is tentatively set to begin Dec. 1, 2020.
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