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The boys are back in town, and that means the Winnipeg Jets are officially gearing up to play some summer hockey.
File this one under the "better late than never" category, but Phase 2 of the NHL's return-to-play plans will finally spring to life early next week as the team opens its facilities for voluntary group skates of up to 12 players at a time. Those who wish to participate at Bell MTS Iceplex will have to undergo frequent COVID-19 testing and follow extensive health regulations. Fans and media will not be permitted to attend, per league protocol.
Winnipeg will be the last team in the league to get to this stage, with most teams starting the process once they got the green light in early June. Such a move was moot around here since nearly every player travelled to their off-season home shortly after the pandemic hit pause on pro sports in mid-March, then decided against rushing back due to strict federal regulations requiring everyone but essential workers to quarantine for 14 days upon entering the country from the United States or Europe.
But time forced their hands, with a deal now in the works to open training camps in mid-July and drop the puck on a unique 24-team Stanley Cup tournament a few weeks later in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. As a result, Jets players began returning en masse to Winnipeg late last week and through the weekend, with the majority now in place and self-isolating as required.
So far, Ottawa has only publicly committed to waiving the mandatory two-week period for teams travelling to the two hub cities, which was a key to choosing Canadian markets. A report out of the U.S. earlier this week suggested there's an exception in place in which players could only serve a week in quarantine provided they pass multiple COVID-19 tests and team officials sign off. Federal officials have yet to comment, and the Jets declined to provide specific details.
"We have a protocol that we have been enforcing, and will enforce, that is to protect players, staff and community," Jets director of communications Scott Brown told the Free Press on Thursday.
Sami Niku is believed to be the only Jets skater who remained in Winnipeg, along with his girlfriend and newborn son, but he now has plenty of company. Most players went to the U.S. or overseas, while a handful were scattered across Canada and allowed to return without needing to quarantine based on recent changes announced by provincial government and health officials.
According to the NHL, more than 250 players have taken advantage of Phase 2, with 15 of them testing positive for COVID-19. More than 1,450 tests have been administered to this group. Another 11 players who have been skating on their own outside the Phase 2 protocols have also been infected.
The NHL and NHLPA were continuing talks Thursday about what the tentative agreement for Phase 3 (training camp) and Phase 4 (the playoffs) will look like, including restrictions on their movement living inside a so-called "bubble." They are also negotiating an extension to the collective bargaining agreement that will include a new financial framework for players and guaranteed Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026.
Based on the plan, all Western Conference teams will start in Edmonton, while Eastern Conference teams will play out of Toronto in empty arenas, likely with multiple games per day in the early rounds. The winners of eight qualifying series, which will be best-of-fives, join the top eight clubs who received a bye into the traditional 16-team, four-round event. Those will all be best-of-seven series.
The eight qualifying losers will have an equal 12.5 per cent chance at the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, which would land them Alexis Lafrenière, who is seen as a generational player and can't-miss prospect. This is based on last week's unique draft lottery in which a yet-to-be determined club had the ping pong balls bounce their way.
Winnipeg will play the Calgary Flames in the qualifying round, with the winner advancing to play one of St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas or Dallas. Teams will be allowed to carry expanded rosters of 28 skaters and four goaltenders. As the field gets smaller, all of the action is expected to shift to Edmonton for both conference finals along with the Stanley Cup final.
All players will have a chance to vote on the resolution, likely this weekend, and a majority will be required to approve it for it to proceed.
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