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Canes opposed 24-team NHL return to play format but are eager to play

Chip Alexander, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) on

Published in Hockey

The Carolina Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against a 24-team return to play format that has been approved by the NHL Players' Association executive board.

Why? Jordan Martinook, the team's player representative to the NHLPA, said Monday the Canes believed an extra play-in round, as proposed, would not only lengthen the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs but also the odds against them winning the Cup.

"You play so hard throughout the whole season to kind of put yourself in a position to make the playoffs," Martinook said in a zoom media call. "Obviously we had a pretty good shot at making it and ... from where we were and where I think our team could get to, it kind of limits our odds and makes you play another playoff series, basically.

"Every playoff series is tough. When you have to win four to win the Stanley Cup I think the (St. Louis) Blues would tell you it's hard enough. Now that you'll have to win five it's obviously hard but it is what it is. We're fine with the way it's going to go. ...

"It wasn't like we didn't want to play or anything. It was just this particular option maybe didn't benefit us. It's just kind of the stance we took."

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL, along with all the other major leagues, suspended its 2019-20 season. On March 12 it announced a "pause" that now has stretched a few months and many of the NHL players returned to their home cities, whether in the U.S., Canada or outside North America.

But the NHL and NHLPA have been jointly working to try and restart the season. The NHLPA on Friday announced the executive board decision on the 24-team format, in which the top four teams in each conference would receive first-round byes while the other 16 go through a best-of-five play-in round to determine the top 16 teams to compete for the Cup.

The games would be played without fans, possibly at as many as four "hub" sites.

Another step was taken Monday by the NHL, which announced it soon would begin "Phase 2" of the restart Players, after a self-quarantine period, will be allowed to participate in small, voluntary workouts -- no more than six players in a group -- on and off the ice at the team's facilities.

The NHL said it was "targeting" a date in early June for the transition to Phase 2. The league said it would "monitor developments" in each team's market in terms what's allowed because of COVID-19 restrictions and then adjust.

"The health of the Players and Club personnel is our top priority," the NHL release said.

And still the biggest question. Restarting a season during a global pandemic will have many challenges, the most pressing being keeping an outbreak from occurring. There is no virus vaccine and it is a very contagious virus. Constant testing and other stringent safety precautions -- social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting -- will have to be taken.

"I think it can be done safely," Martinook said. "I don't think they would let us come back if it wasn't safe. Safety is definitely the main key. It doesn't look good if we come back and then a bunch of guys get sick."

 

That would likely be a season-stopper, something no one wants.

"I think they've done their due diligence and hopefully and we can come back and we can play and everybody can get through it safely and give some people something to cheer about," said Martinook, a forward in his fifth full NHL season.

Martinook, 27, said the NHLPA player rep call was heated and that "other teams were on the fence." According to multiple media reports, the Tampa Bay Lightning was the only other team to vote "no" on the 24-team format.

In addition to opposing the format, there also is the problem of players potentially being away from their families an extended period of time, in workout, training and then in completing a 24-team format and awarding the Cup. Martinook is married and has a young child and said the idea of being away has caused some family stress.

"But there's probably a ton of doctors who are out there and not around their families because they're exposed to (COVID-19)," he said. "There's so many people in worse positions than us. "

What might the playoffs look like? The Hurricanes were 38-25-5 after 68 games -- ranking sixth in the Eastern Conference with 81 points -- and held the first wild-card playoff spot when the season was suspended. If the teams are seeded and bracketed according to point percentage in a restart, the Canes would be the No. 6 seed and face the New York Rangers in the play-in round.

Martinook wasn't sure how many of the Canes players are currently in the Raleigh area, saying maybe less than 10. With Phase 2 voluntary, he said some players might wait it out until a training camp schedule is set.

Despite the team's opposition to the format, Martinook said the Canes' players want to get back on the ice and compete for the Cup. He chuckled when noting returning to games, because of safety concerns, could mean full face shields and such things as no spitting allowed.

"I know everybody on our team wants to win, wants to come back and play," he said. "It's going to be different. It's going to be crazy. It'll be something you can tell your kids one day, that you got to play this crazy playoff. And hopefully after this go back to some normalcy."

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