RETURN TO PLAY GETS ONE STEP CLOSER AS LEAGUE AND UNION LAUNCHES PHASE 3

The announcement aims to have formal training camps on July 10, giving players plenty of time to return from their homes around the world and prepare for real game action – assuming the pandemic doesn’t take another turn

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Phase 3 is a go. The NHL and NHLPA have agreed on a start date for formal training camps and July 10 is the target for the 24 teams that remain in the post-season picture.

This date, of course, is subject to medical and safety conditions at the time. On top of that, the NHL and the players must reach an overall agreement on resuming play itself before that date.

With all that out of the way, this is naturally exciting news for hockey fans and the sport itself. While the Covid-19 pandemic is far from being vanquished, a number of American states and Canadian provinces are opening up their communities, paving the way for the sporting world to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

NBA basketball, a sport whose season is nearly identical to hockey and is played in many of the same arenas, has already announced a tentative date return: July 31, with 22 of the league’s 30 teams all travelling to Orlando (specifically, Disney World) to play eight regular season games each, followed by a playoff tournament that may or may not involve play-in games.

Should the NHL’s formal training camps indeed begin on July 10, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun estimates that real games could begin around Aug. 1, with the Stanley Cup final happening in early October.

Players will have to agree to all this, of course. Right now, small groups of players are allowed to skate together but attendance is not mandatory. Phase 3, the formal training camps, would include required attendance. Given that some players are still in far-flung locations (the saga of Pittsburgh prospect goalie Emil Larmi’s departure from Finland was, like everything he does on Twitter, amusing), the month-long period between Phase 2 and Phase 3 is practical on a number of fronts.

Keep in mind, while many players are naturally excited to return to game action, there are others who have families to consider during this dangerous medical epoch and there is still a lot to work out. We still do not know which two cities will be the hubs for the playoffs, though Las Vegas seems like a practical lock thanks to the city’s wealth of hotels and facilities (plus Nevada has already allowed people back in casinos).

There are still a number of questions to be answered before actual games take place – how much freedom of movement will players have off the ice in the hub cities? Will reporters be allowed to cover the games in person? – but the NHL and the players are certainly moving forward with the announcement of Phase 3.

Caution is still the word of the day, but hockey’s return is getting closer.