Sources — NHL no longer considering neutral sites for season restart

The NHL has turned its attention away from neutral sites and is focusing on restarting the 2019-20 season at league arenas, sources told ESPN.

Venues like the University of North Dakota were rumored to be under consideration for “neutral site” games in less-populated locations that weren’t as affected by the coronavirus pandemic as some NHL cities. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he had discussions with the NHL about hosting games at Southern New Hampshire University and that the option was “on the table.”

But NHL sources said the “neutral site” idea never got off the drawing board, due to problems with player accommodations, facilities for league and team staff, and the inability to bring multiple broadcasting crews to cover potential Stanley Cup playoff games. NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said there had been no discussions about specific neutral sites with the NHL either.

Instead, the league is looking at regional NHL arenas, aligned by division, where teams could potentially finish their seasons. Sources told ESPN that the current favorites are the home rinks for the Carolina Hurricanes (Metropolitan Division), Edmonton Oilers (Pacific Division) and Minnesota Wild (Central Division). A front-runner from the Atlantic Division has yet to emerge.

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The NHL’s goal remains to finish the regular season, which had 189 games remaining when it was paused due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12. One concept would be to play multiple games throughout the day at these sites, like one would see at international tournaments.

As far as when a league restart could happen, Florida Panthers president and CEO Matthew Caldwell said Tuesday that the NHL has discussed resuming its season in the summer.

“The players right now are all quarantined. I know for the NHL, our players are quarantined through the end of April, and that will probably be extended into May. But when we are able to come out of the quarantine period, players are going to need time to work out,” Caldwell said on a Re-Open Florida Task Force conference call, as first reported by “The Andy Slater Show.” “I think all leagues are thinking about some training camp that we would do before the start of the season.

“So that’s going to take us into the June time frame. At least with the NHL, we’re trying to target some time in July. When we feel that players are safe and we have enough testing and we have enough ways to get back on the ice, for us it’s probably going to be contained at playing at four or five neutral sites. So that’s all being discussed right now. My guess is that we would start with limited fans or empty arenas. So just with the teams and the associated staffs.”

An NHL source said this plan was one of many discussed but pushed back on the notion that July was the target date, saying the league would open earlier if it could. The source said speculation that fans could return to arenas in a limited capacity for a season restart was premature.

The NHL has its players self-quarantined until April 30. Any format for a season restart would have to be approved by the NHLPA. Both the league and the players’ association have said that restrictions on travel, mass gatherings and nonessential businesses would need to be eased before the season could be restarted; beyond that, there would also have to be measures taken to ensure the health and safety of the players.

“We’ll follow the directions of the appropriate public health authorities. That goes without saying,” Fehr told ESPN on Saturday. “When and if they say — and, obviously, we hope it’s sooner rather than later — that they can declare it safe under certain conditions, we’ll adhere to those guidelines. The NHL has retained specific infectious disease specialists, as have we; everyone is working together. You will do everything you can to make sure it’s as safe as it can be. If there’s enough unreasonable risk, it’s hard to see coming back.”

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan contributed to this report.

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Donald Fehr — NHL, union haven’t discussed specific neutral playoff sites

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr on Saturday said he has not yet had any discussions with the NHL about specific neutral-site locations for a potential Stanley Cup playoffs this summer.

“Other than the general understanding that they’re looking at all possibilities, which includes neutral sites — neutral being defined as a place that isn’t a home base for an NHL team,” Fehr told ESPN. “We haven’t had those discussions yet.”

The NHL is getting pitches from venues and cities across North America to be potential hosts, although deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN last week that the league hasn’t narrowed down the list yet. The governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, told WEEI on Friday that he’s had talks with the NHL and said playing the rest of the season in Manchester, New Hampshire, is “on the table.”

Fehr said the NHLPA is aware of the ethical concerns of staging an NHL event in a rural area where there are no stay-at-home orders.

“Obviously, it would seem to me that the governors or the prime ministers of any such locations, for them to be interested, would have first and foremost in their mind the health and safety of their own residents,” Fehr said.

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Fehr said any decision about the future of the 2019-20 regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs is tied to an easing of restrictions on travel, essential business and mass gatherings. Given the inconsistency of the guidelines on those issues — where even neighboring states have two different standards — Fehr said a “green light” to restart the season will come from “some combination” of local and federal government guidance.

“You’re going to want to know what the CDC says, without any question at all. But in addition to that, as we all know, the state governors and the provincial premiers have the basic responsibilities over their own jurisdictions, so you’re going to have to work with them too,” Fehr said. “The implication of the question is whether it’s OK to play in some places and not others. I don’t know if that’s true. I assume it’s certainly possible. If it is, we’ll see what makes sense.”

Then there’s the border issue. Many European-born players have returned to their home countries, but Fehr sounded confident that the league would be able to assist in bringing them back to North America this summer, if necessary.

“We obviously have our own resources, our own lawyers in both countries — the U.S. and Canada,” Fehr said. “The NHL obviously has its own people, and as you know, employers ordinarily have the primary responsibility for visas and exit and entry of people that have work permits and so on. So we’ll do that.”

But Fehr noted that “it’s going to be very difficult to do anything” if borders between the U.S. and Canada remain closed.

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