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What Happens If There Is Bubble Trouble? NHL Protocols Explained As The Season Is Set To Resume.

By: Jess Shaw

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller, Getty Images.

In March, the rise of Covid-19 hit the United States halting the completion of the NHL and NBA seasons while also delaying the start of the MLB season. Now, to bring back sports, the term “bubble” atmosphere has become increasingly popular for leagues attempting to get back on track. Lately, it has been discussed widely in sports news how the NBA has its own set of rules and regulations that players, coaches, and staff must follow in the bubble. The NHL is no different.

The agreement to continue the NHL season was approved after owners and players voted to resume it. It is set to resume soon, as August 1 will commence the extended 24-team playoff in two different hub cities, in Edmonton, and Toronto.[1]Edmonton will host the Western Conference and Toronto will host the Eastern Conference. Each team will be limited to 50 personnel, and only a small number of support staff will be allowed in the areas.[2] When games begin, players will be tested every evening and results will be available the next morning before they leave the hotel to ensure player health and safety.[3]

During down time, players may be permitted to use the hotel pool and go on field trips. The NHL stated that the “hotel pool, if open, is permitted for use by all individuals at the Secure Zone Hotel, so long as individuals can socially distance, both in and out of the pool. Individuals must disinfect lounge chairs before and after each use. The pool may be subject to capacity limits at any given time.”[4] Regarding team outings the league stated, “recognizing the importance of mental health and the psychological benefit of variation in activity, social excursions will be arranged both inside and outside the Phase 4 Secure Zone, provided that disinfecting, distancing, use of face coverings and personal hygiene measures can be maintained.”[5]

Family members will not be permitted to visit players until the conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals in October. An exception to this rule exists for emergencies and dire family situations. If there is a situation in which an emergency arises, players may leave the team upon the team granting approval. If the player is granted approval and later player elects to returns to their team, there will be an extensive process to ensure they are Covid-19 negative.[6] This process will be demonstrated with the Washington Capitals Center Lars Eller.

Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals is an example of a player exercising this exemption. On July 14, Eller said he plans to leave the qualifiers of the Stanley Cup to be with his wife when she is scheduled to give birth. The Capitals Center is expected to travel with the team to Toronto on July 26 and play in the opening round series against the Lightning beginning on August 3. Eller is expected to return some time during the first series to be with his wife as she gives birth. However, his return date back to the bubble is undetermined. When Eller returns to Toronto, “he will be required to quarantine in his hotel room until he has received at least four consecutive negative Covid-19 test results over the course of a four-day period.”[7] If Eller, or any other player who leaves the bubble and elects to return was exposed to someone infected with Covid-19 while outside the secure zone, their quarantine may last up to 14 days.[8]

Ultimately, the eligibility for players based on Covid-19 testing or a need for quarantine will be decided by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.[9] At a press conference Bettman confirmed that he and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will not be on-site during the games, and will be conducting the large overview of health and player safety. While the final call about a player’s eligibility may be up to Bettman, his intention to defer to medical personnel seems clear as he stated, “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.”[10]

However, this statement raises one main question. Does Bettman have the authority to make the final call about players eligibility if they test positive for Covid-19 or need to be quarantined? Bettman’s powers are derived from the NHL Constitution under Article 6. Under 6.1(j) “the commissioner has the full and complete power to discipline any person associated with the league for conduct that the commissioner deems detrimental to the League or game of hockey.” [11]Given the circumstances, Bettman’s current job is to protect the health of the players, coaches, and leagues staff from Covid-19. Examining 6.1(j), Bettman can discipline any player, he can apply that authority to players who have tested positive for Covid-19. While it may be a stretch, the rule can be interpreted to mean that Bettman does have the authority to decided who plays and who does not. However, as the NHL Constitution was last updated in 2014, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement was recently updated, this may change the authority that Bettman has. As the season begins it will be interesting to see if Bettman exercises any new authority in which has not yet been made public, or if the previous referred to provision of the NHL Constitution is broad enough to encompass these decisions.

There is optimism surrounding the NHL as the return to play plan moves forward. During the second week of training camp, the league announced zero positive Covid-19 results of the 800 players tested.[12] While the news does not mean that the NHL is immune to Covid-19, it gives the sports world hope that the return to play plan in the two respective hub city bubbles may work.

At this point with medical data uncertain about the infectious spread of Covid-19, is the NHL standard of 4 straight negative tests enough to ensure player safety? Or should this standard be elevated? This decision becomes increasingly difficult to determine while balancing the fact that all of these games being played matter extensively as many will be the important playoff games, and every game will matter. It may be problematic to hold players off the ice longer than what is necessary, and Commissioner Bettman will likely have to balance this against safety concerns. Only time will tell how this plays out, but it seems inevitable that controversy may be in the near future.


Jess is a rising 2L at New York Law School.

[1] Andrew Knoll, N.H.L. Owners And Players Approve New C.B.A. And Return-To-Play Plan, NY Times (Jul. 11, 2020), [2] Sarah McLellan, Toronto, Edmonton Likely To Be Hub Cities When NHL Postseason Starts, Star Tribune , (Jul. 5, 2020), [3] Id. [4] Greg Wyshynski, 10 Lingering Questions About The NHL Return-To-Play Bubbles, ESPN, (Jul. 9, 2020), [5] Id. [6] Sean Leahy, Inside The NHL Bubble: Testing, What Could Cause Postponement, NBC Sports, (Jul. 7, 2020), [7] Tom Gulitti, Eller Plans To Leave Capitals During Qualifiers For Birth Of Son, NHL, (Jul. 14, 2020), [8] Id. [9] Greg Wyshynski, Gary Bettman Will Make Call On NHL Players Who Test Positive for Coronavirus, ESPN, (Jul. 24, 2020), [10] Id. [11]Adriano Pacifici, Scope and Authority of Sports League Commissioner Disciplinary Power: Bounty and Beyond, 3 Berkeley J. Ent. & Sports L. 93 (2014). [12] James O'Brien, NHL Announces Zero Positive COVID-19 Tests During Second Week Of Training Camp, NBC Sports (Jul. 27, 2020),

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