As NHL starts back up, don't expect mingling among players in hubs

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — There will be 24 NHL teams split between two different sites beginning next week, competing for the Stanley Cup. But don’t expect much mingling.

In fact, don’t expect any mixing among teams, and players, at all.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

Steven Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer, who oversees the production of the hub city arenas in Edmonton and Toronto, said players requested separation.

“We’re finding from our players, this is the Stanley Cup playoffs and they are competing for the Stanley Cup, and it’s in their interest to be separated,” Mayer said during a Zoom media conference Friday. “The players’ feedback is their interest to be separated throughout. We’ll see how that evolves as the tournament moves on.”

There are stringent rules in place through the play-in round — which begins Aug. 1 — that separation and social distancing take place in the restaurants and any sort of common areas in the two hotels in each city teams are staying.

But players are expressed in interviews this week that they cannot imagine mingling going on with friends on other teams.

More: Ex-Wings GM Ken Holland excited about being back in playoffs in Edmonton

“Once you go on the ice it’s a war,” Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis forward, said during a media call this week. “I don’t think it’ll be too friendly around the bubble.”

Boston goalie Tuukka Rask said during a call this week the natural competitiveness that evolves during a playoff series will likely prevail over any sort of mingling with other teams.

"If you play a seven-game playoff series and there's some heat going on between the teams," Rask said. "(There's) probably not playing ping pong together at the hotel."

Commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, and various other NHL officials also were on Friday's media call, days before teams begin trickling into Toronto and Edmonton.

About 150 NHL office employees and over 1,000 people total at the two hubs, who are working to iron out details in what will be a two-month playoff tournament.

“Health and safety is driving all of our decisions and all of our attention and focus,” Bettman said. “That is the primary aspect of what we have to accomplish over the next couple of months.”

More: Red Wings prospect Albin Grewe heading to Saginaw to further his development

Here are other topics discussed Friday:

►Bettman will have the final call if a player can compete, but only after consultation with medical personnel.

“In the final analysis, it may be me, but I'm going to defer to the medical people, both from the governmental authorities and our own medical people in conjunction with the Players Association,” Bettman said. “I won’t be making the medical decisions. I’ll be taking the guidance. But I suppose it’s my authority to decide who plays in our games and who doesn’t, but that's a decision I’m going to leave to the people who are experts in doing this.”

►On-ice officials are confident and excited about returning to actual games.

Stephen Walkom, NHL senior vice president/director of officiating, said the 20 referees and linsemen in each hub will have an opportunity to interact that isn’t usually possible during the season or playoffs.

“There’s a trust in the system that’s been set up in the bubble,” Walkom said. “Our guys understand that the players have been tested thoroughly. They’re going to be tested every day, just as they are. Our guys are going into the game more concerned about avoiding sticks and pucks than anything else.

“Once the puck goes down, that’s their real safety concern.”

►Bettman and Daly will not be in either Toronto or Edmonton when games begin.

“Bill and I have actually put ourselves on the back burner because we don’t have the requisite approvals to enter Canada or the bubble without a 14-day quarantine,” Bettman said. “We also have an open question as to whether or not an owner or a senior executive of a club can come in and watch the games from outside the bubble. Those are questions that are still evolving.”