To get an idea just how seriously the National Hockey League is taking coronavirus precautions on its path to resuming the season and crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion, consider the League's Phase 2 memorandum of the Return to Play Plan sent out to all teams is 22 pages long and consists of such minutia as:
- Supplements must be made available in single-dispense packs; common containers and scoops shared by individuals are prohibited
- Players must use water bottles that are permanently marked with their name, number or other means of identification so as not to share their water bottle with another individual
- Avoid handshakes, high fives and fist bumps, even with individuals and teammates you know well
Clearly, the NHL doesn't want to take any chances of a coronavirus outbreak derailing plans to complete the 2019-20 season.
To that end, head athletic trainer Tom Mulligan might be the most important member of the Lightning organization right now.
If you've seen Mulligan before, it's usually when he's racing out onto the ice to attend to an injured player during Lightning games.
Now, he's at the forefront of the organization's efforts to make sure it's following all League protocols with regards to protecting its players and staff against the coronavirus inside its facilities in addition to his typical duties of protecting players from injuries and treating them when injured.
"At this point, kind of the focus of my job has turned to implementing the protocols that are in place and making sure everything is followed to the letter of the law, most importantly for the safety of the players and the staff that are in here to provide a safe environment for them," Mulligan said. "We kind of call it our little safe haven here to minimize any risk of exposure. That's kind of been my challenge the last few weeks is just implementing that, making sure we are taking all the right steps along the way."
There are plenty of steps too.
Even before a player can enter the facility for training, whether it be AMALIE Arena or the Bolts' practice rink at TGH IcePlex, he has to take his temperature at home and record it with Mulligan while also reporting any coronavirus symptoms. Then, once the player arrives at the facility, he has another temperature check before being allowed to enter and train. The cutoff is 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit; any player recording a temp higher can't come in.
Players and staff are required to wear masks entering and leaving the facility. Once inside, they have to keep the mask on at all times. Only when exercising or while on the ice can the mask be removed. Players have to stay socially distanced. Locker room stalls have been spaced out accordingly so each player can maintain a six-foot distance from others. Water bottles are labeled. So are towels, which the equipment staff embroidered with each players' number so no sharing could occur. Player-access staff are required to wear masks and gloves at all times. Gloves are changed out after each interaction with a player. If an individual touches his or her face with a gloved hand, the gloves are discarded and the individual's hands and face must be thoroughly washed with soap and water.
The Lightning even brought in an infectious disease specialist to walk through both of their facilities before opening to point out high-touch surfaces and ways to improve air flow.
"How can you avoid the high touch? Maybe taking drinks out of the refrigerator cooler and putting them on the table next to it so the players don't have to reach for the refrigerator door every time they want to get a Gatorade out of there," said Mulligan. "Just steps like that to insure we're taking the safest precautions we can."
Lightning director of hockey operations Mathieu Darche said the NHL did an excellent job communicating the new protocols that would need to be put in place before players could return for Phase 2 as well as giving teams enough time to be able to implement them.
"We've had those protocols since around May 25, and (Phase 2) just started this week, so we've had time to digest it and take the proper steps," Darche said. "Since (the memorandum) came out, we've had a lot of amendments to it or modified it just to keep up to date. There are a lot of things we have to send back to the league as far as attendance and making sure we send our groups and names of people that will be involved. So it's just keeping in touch with the League, sending them what they require."
The NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26, highlighted by a modified playoff tournament where 24 teams - 12 from each conference - will compete in two hub cities for the Stanley Cup. The announcement also outlined the process by which NHL players could return to their team's training facilities and train in groups of no more than six people (Phase 2) and a formal training camp (Phase 3).
Nine days later, the NHL established June 8 as the date the League would transition to Phase 2 of the Return to Play Plan.
Mulligan outlined a three-step process necessary to clear players for on-ice action.
The first step was an educational session. Mulligan and his staff set up two Zoom videoconferences, one for players and player-access staff - those people that are allowed to be in contact with the players during Phase 2, one athletic trainer, one strength and conditioning coach and one equipment manager for each group - and another for non-player staff from hockey operations.
"We were able to answer any questions," Mulligan said. "The session spelled out everything from quarantine restrictions if they're coming back into town to use of PPE to what our cleaning procedures were going to be."
The next step was testing all players for COVID-19, which was completed two days prior to the start of Phase 2. Darche said players continue to be tested twice a week.
And, finally, on the first day of Phase 2, the players went through a medical exam similar to the one they would undergo before the start of training camp.
"It was a little bit of a scaled-down version, not as intensive as we do since we're still technically in season," Mulligan said. "But just to make sure no issues have arisen during the time away.
"Once that was completed Monday, then it was game on Tuesday."
It's important to remember Phase 2 is voluntary. Players aren't required to come back to their team's facilities for on-ice activity. Some players who might be quarantining in other team markets that aren't their own can make arrangements with those teams to skate in those facilities.
Most Lightning players have remained in the Tampa Bay area however, allowing them to hit the ground running (or hit the ice skating as it were) once Phase 2 began.
"We're very fortunate that a lot of our players are in town," Darche said. "They're eager to get back at it. They're very happy to have a chance at playing again. They're doing drills the same way they would normally be doing in August, a month or so before the start of training camp, during a typical off-season. The only difference being that they are limited to having six players on the ice at a time, but the players are creative and they are finding ways of making the most of their ice time. Hockey's a sport where no matter what you do off the ice, the skating movement is not a natural thing you can work on. It's not like you can go outside and mimic the demands of starting and stopping on the ice. It's good that the guys are on the ice now, they get those skating muscles back firing."
After nearly three months away from hockey, the transition to Phase 2 and on-ice activity has given the players a return to some sense of normalcy. That, coupled with an ever-increasing likelihood the NHL will award a Stanley Cup this season and the Lightning have as good a chance as any team to hoist that Cup at season's end, has spirits high inside the team's facilities.
"They're excited," Darche said. "It's the first step towards a resumption of play. I don't think there have been any complaints. It's a new reality for everybody so if we need to make adjustments, we'll make adjustments as we go. Nobody's ever lived this this situation before. We'll follow the protocol, and we'll adjust accordingly if need be."