By Pierre LeBrun Apr 27, 2020
It has always been interesting to me over the years to see which NHLers end up playing roles in collective bargaining.
Or on the Competition Committee.
It tells you about their willingness to stick their neck out and take ownership, something that I have always respected.
Which is how I view the players who have accepted invitations from the NHL Players’ Association to be members of a so-called Return to Play Committee.
The idea of trying to salvage the season has become a divisive issue, so it would be understandable if some players said, “thanks but no thanks” to the idea of sitting on calls with NHL brass to game theory what a season resumption may look like.
So kudos to Connor McDavid, James van Riemsdyk, Ron Hainsey, John Tavares and Mark Scheifele for agreeing to join the committee, which has had two meetings and plans to convene (in a virtual manner of course) at least once a week to tackle issues, of which there are many, in visualizing what reigniting the 2019-20 season would look it.
If it happens at all, of course.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, senior executive VP Colin Campbell and NHL schedule maker Steve Hatze Petros have been on the committee calls representing the league so far, while NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, NHLPA executives Mathieu Schneider, Don Zavelo and Steve Webb have joined the above-mentioned players to rep the NHLPA.
“I was asked to be a part of it and I’m obviously happy to help and communicate with as many guys as I can and get a general feeling on what we feel is going to be best, collectively, going forward coming out of this, how best to deal with this situation,” Tavares said over the phone on Monday. “Obviously, timing is very important from a health and safety standpoint to proper preparation and then how to play with integrity and fairness to award the Stanley Cup. All that is part of this and I’m just happy to be part of it.’’
Tavares, it should be noted, began our interview by pointing out that there are bigger issues at play right now in society dealing with the pandemic, but that obviously at some point the NHL will have to get rolling again. No matter when that happens, there will be issues to overcome, so the Toronto Maple Leafs captain welcomed the chance to share his voice in shaping that transition for the season to be restarted.
The back and forth with NHL officials have been a healthy dialogue so far.
“I think it’s great,” Tavares said. “We ask questions from our side, and they ask questions from their side. Just all trying to get on the same page and get a good understanding of once things do get to a point where the time is right to progress and potentially preparing to play, what’s going to be needed?”
One of the messages from the players on the committee so far? They need ample time to skate again before even thinking of playing games.
“In hockey, as much as you can train and get stronger and work on a lot of things off the ice, there’s really nothing that can really truly mimic the type of stress skating has,” Tavares said. “So I think that’s been a big talking point and I think they wanted to get a good sense of that. And for us, just what are they looking at from a scheduling standpoint and how they’re kind of managing all this, how they see this unfolding if things turn the corner and there’s approval from health officials and people in government, people in those positions who give the green light, just trying to get a whole understanding so we can just be as best prepared. So if there’s an opportunity, or when the opportunity is there to get things rolling, that we’re ready and everyone’s on the same page and feels good about re-starting and getting back into it.’’
Daly says the feedback from players has been well-received in the committee meetings.
“I think it’s always very helpful to hear directly from the players,” Daly said via email on Monday. “And their guidance on issues like how much time they think they are going to need to reacclimate and recondition are essential to our collective planning. ‘’
If there’s one word Bettman has repeated constantly over the past few weeks in addressing all the possible return to play scenarios, it’s “flexibility.’’ That depending on how the pandemic continues to play out, the league will need to be ready for several different options.
So while there’s been talk of players needing a three-week training camp before the season can resume, even that depends.
“So, it’s hard to get into exact timing,” Tavares said of a three-week training camp. “That’s what we discussed is having an understanding that if certain variables present themselves, how we can address them. This is also about being prepared. Because things are changing, as we see, daily and weekly; so just being able to adapt about how much time we’re going to have, how much time we’re going to need.”
Phase 2 of the NHL-NHLPA plan is loosening self-quarantine and allowing players to work out in small groups at team facilities. Will that be in mid-May as hoped? That’s not decided yet.
If Phase 2 gets truncated, maybe a longer training camp is needed. These are all the different scenarios at play.
“If we’re not on the ice very long and obviously have to get a lot of players from around the globe into their club cities – which will be a challenge in its own right – making sure everyone has all the right amount of time to get those first couple of weeks to really get those cobwebs out,” Tavares said. “Just to really feel about being back on the ice let lone thinking about being competitive. So do we need a longer training camp? So it’s just discussing all those types of variables and how to approach them if certain things unfold and be as best prepared as we can be, so we just have a good understanding of each other and when decisions need to be made they can be made quickly.’’
Either way, whether it’s through small groups in Phase 2 or longer camps in Phase 3, the players will need ample time to skate again.
“I think definitely the most important thing is getting the proper preparation … for guys to be healthy and safe in playing the game,’’ Tavares said. “And also, we’re at a very crucial point in our season where we’re finishing up the regular season, each team has around 10 games left, maybe a couple more than that, and then you’re into the most competitive that anyone plays in a two-month grind of trying to win the Stanley Cup.
“To just jump right into that is unrealistic when pretty much 100 percent of the league has been off skates what will be getting close to two months here. So it really is substantial from our end to make sure we’re properly prepared.’’
Then there’s the proposed idea of resuming the season in four “bubble’’ cities. Toronto among a dozen cities being vetted by the NHL to be one of those centralized sites.
But the tough part for a lot of players is the idea of being away from loved ones and living in that bubble for quite a while, anywhere from a month to two and a half months depending on the team.
“We’ve definitely had that conversation about the time commitment and what that could account for, especially teams that go really deep in the playoffs and if this scenario is the one that ends up happening, I think from players we definitely brought that up to their attention and they’ve completely been really understanding that that’s a part of this process and something that’s going to have to be addressed,’’ Tavares said. “Because that’s a very significant amount of time.’’
Tavares is getting player feedback on that front from around the league but even in his situation, being away for that long would be tough with a seven-and-a-half-month-old newborn at home.
“I know personally, my situation, that would be very difficult to go through that amount of time without seeing your family, especially a newborn son and whatnot,” Tavares said. “But I think the league has been very receptive, there are still hurdles to cross before we get into more details about that.”
In the end, Tavares said there’s also the understanding that this is a far-from-ideal situation everyone is in right now.
“I think the common thread on a lot of things, it’s never really going to be perfect because obviously with the circumstances we’re in, there are a lot bigger issues than the game,” Tavares said. “But once things are healthy and safe, we’re facing challenges that we never faced before and we’re going to try to do the best we can to make it as perfect as we can. … Us talking and going back and forth and listening to what’s really important to us and how we can make it best we can, that’s a great sign and it’s been really good that we started the conversation early to try to be ahead of things and on top of it if and when we can resume.’’
It’s a tough task ahead for the committee, regardless of the outcome.
“It’s just trying to make the best decisions possible with the most amount of information you have in front of you to get the best result,” Tavares said. “Do the best you can for everyone as players and for the game as a whole. We want to get back playing and we want to play for the Stanley Cup. But we also understand there’s a lot more going on than the game, and just keep things in perspective and try to understand that.’’