NHL Commissioner On How The League Keeps Athletes Safe: 'Be As Flexible As Possible'

Aug 5, 2020
Originally published on August 6, 2020 8:07 am

The National Hockey League resumed play on Saturday, with players emerging from the "bubbles" they've been hunkering down in since July 26.

And so far, players are staying healthy. Since relocating to the bubbles — in two Canadian cities, Edmonton and Toronto — the league says it's given more than 7,000 tests to players on 24 teams, and none have come back positive for COVID-19.

The key to keeping the league safe, says NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, has been to "be as flexible as possible."

"We've got to be agile enough to react to anything that might happen," he says.

The commissioner says each hub has housing, a handful of restaurants, lots of outdoor space, and is close to the hockey arena.

"Everybody in the bubble has felt good about how it's been set up, and actually a couple of players have been quoted as saying that this is the safest they've felt since the beginning of March," Bettman says.

On how the league adapted to the pandemic

First, we had our players go home and isolate. Then, phase two was we opened training facilities for small groups. Phase three was training camps in the home cities of where our clubs play. But we started testing regularly — the last full week of training camp, I think we did 2,500 tests and there were no player positives.

On the delayed playing seasons

We'll finish the 2019-2020 season in early October, which would've typically have been when we started next season. But the calendar's now shifted. I could see us starting next season — and we're anticipating playing a full season — in late November, December. ... We'll take some time off after we finish the playoffs, crown a Stanley Cup champion, and then we'll start up again in November, December, in that time frame.

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

It is early days, but so far, so good for the NHL in the pandemic. Hockey players returned to the ice on Saturday. Twenty-four teams are hunkering down in two separate bubbles - one in Edmonton and the other in Toronto. And after more than 7,000 COVID tests given, the league says there have been no positive cases. Earlier, I talked to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about the state of play, and he first took us back to the start of hockey's shutdown.

GARY BETTMAN: We were about 89% through the regular season, anticipating two months of playoff action when COVID-19 caused us and all sports to take a pause.

VANEK SMITH: And from what I understand, you kind of took over a couple of hotels and built fences around them and set up, like, basketball courts and, like, little cities, almost.

BETTMAN: Yes. We've created literally bubbles that included not just housing and dining - I mean, each bubble, I think, has somewhere between eight and 10 restaurants - was in close proximity to the arena, and we made sure there was plenty of outdoor space as well. And the feedback that we've gotten is a - everybody in the bubble has felt very good about how it's been set up. And actually, a couple of players have been quoted as saying that this is the safest they've felt since the middle of March.

VANEK SMITH: Is there anything unique about hockey that makes it either more challenging or less challenging to prevent an outbreak? I mean, I'm thinking of just all the gear that the players wear on ice possibly helping.

BETTMAN: Well, there is physical contact. But if you go through the phases of what we did starting in March, first, we had our players go home and isolate. Then phase two was we opened training facilities for small groups. Phase three was training camp, with the training camps in the home cities of where our clubs play, but we started testing regularly. The last full week of training camp, I think we did 2,500 tests, and there were no player positives.

So the belief was once we got to the bubble, we would hope - and, again, there's nothing that's risk-free in this environment, the COVID-19 environment - we believed that we would have as good a chance as possible of keeping everybody safe and healthy.

VANEK SMITH: So how will playing right now potentially affect next year's season? Are you even thinking about next year's season?

BETTMAN: We have to think about everything, and that's been one of our mantras from the middle of March and making sure...

VANEK SMITH: Your mantra is think about everything? (Laughter).

BETTMAN: To think about everything. And - but that was only the first part of the mantra. The second part is we've got to be agile enough to react to anything that might happen. We'll finish the 2019-2020 season in early October, which would have typically been when we started next season. But the calendar is now shifted. I could see us starting next season - and we're anticipating playing a full season - in late November, December. We've learned, part of that mantra, to be as flexible as possible. So we'll take some time off after we finish the playoffs, crown the Stanley Cup champion, and then we'll start up again - November, December - in that timeframe.

VANEK SMITH: So are you planning to go up to Canada to watch the games in person, or are you watching them from home?

BETTMAN: Well, actually, right now as we're speaking, I'm watching a game between the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers.

VANEK SMITH: Really?

BETTMAN: Yeah. I have it on in the background.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

BETTMAN: But yes, at some point, I will be up there. But I am not essential to what's going on right now, and there are other things that need to be attended to that aren't conducive to me being up there. And I'm going to have to figure out how to deal with the quarantines like everybody else who's crossing the border.

VANEK SMITH: How's the game going, by the way?

BETTMAN: It was 1-1 after two periods. And they're now in the second intermission. So you can see I can multitask.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was such a pleasure.

BETTMAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Be well and be safe.

VANEK SMITH: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. That game, by the way, the Panthers beat the Islanders 3 to 2. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.