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NHL to be 'very strict' with virus protocols, Commissioner Bettman says

Qualifiers, playoffs 'will bring out the best in our teams and our players'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The NHL plans "very strict" health and safety protocols for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the 24-team tournament will honor the integrity of the game, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday.

"This will be a full competition which will bring out the best in our teams and our players, and the Stanley Cup champion will be deserving of that crown and the most storied trophy in all of sports," Commissioner Bettman said on "The Return of Sports" on ESPN.

The NHL paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

Teams were allowed to begin voluntary, limited small-group workouts at their facilities June 8.

"It seems like they're kind of ahead of the curve and taking all the precautions that are necessary to keep us safe and healthy," Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane told ESPN. "Just being at the rink right now, whether it's getting tested a couple times a week for [COVID-19] or the precautions they're taking while we're at the rink, they're definitely doing everything they can, so that's [appreciated]."

Provided medical and safety conditions allow and the NHL and the NHL Players' Association reach an agreement on resuming play, teams will open training camps July 10, and play will resume with the qualifiers.

The top four teams in each conference will play a three-game round-robin for seeding, and the others will play best-of-5 series to qualify for the playoffs. The dates and locations of two hub cities -- one for the 12 Western Conference teams, one for the 12 Eastern teams -- are to be announced.

Commissioner Bettman said players and support staff will be tested each day. If someone tests positive, that person will be isolated, and anyone who was in close proximity to the person will be monitored.

"Obviously for any sport, if you have a major outbreak, it's going to change everything, but we're being told that an isolated case, or a couple of isolated cases, shouldn't interfere with the plans, and we should be able to move forward," the Commissioner said.

Commissioner Bettman said the idea is to create a bubble, and with testing during voluntary workouts and training camps, by the time the NHL resumes play "we should have a pretty good sense of what our population is and how well they've been tested and monitored."

The NHL and the NHL Players' Association created the Return to Play Plan with the Return to Play Committee. Commissioner Bettman said the players "felt as strongly about the integrity of the competition" as the League did.

With 189 regular-season games remaining at the pause, the NHL and the NHLPA decided it was necessary to have a play-in round for teams that had a legitimate chance of making the playoffs. The result will be 16 teams playing best-of-5 series to qualify for the playoffs, with the top eight teams (four from each conference) receiving byes for the play-in round.

Commissioner Bettman said based on the combination of that and 16 teams playing four rounds of best-of-7 series in the playoffs as usual, "everybody can feel good" about the integrity of the competition.

Kane said it will be different to play without fans in the stands, but the players want to put on a show for fans watching on television.

"I don't think anyone will really worry about [how it would be viewed] if someone won a championship or an asterisk, if you'd like to say, because it's unprecedented times," Kane said. "Us as players, I think any time you get a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup, you're doing that and taking advantage fully of it."

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