For several months, NHL players riding out the COVID-19 pandemic at their off-season homes haven't had to make a lot of difficult decisions. Hit the golf course or tennis court? Go for a roller-blade or a run? Pizza or pasta for dinner? Not exactly life-altering stuff.

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Opinion

For several months, NHL players riding out the COVID-19 pandemic at their off-season homes haven't had to make a lot of difficult decisions. Hit the golf course or tennis court? Go for a roller-blade or a run? Pizza or pasta for dinner? Not exactly life-altering stuff.

But that's about to change. Soon, the choice staring them in the face could have major implications on both their short and long-term future, for themselves and loved ones. To play, or not to play? That is question.

While science, data and troubling recent events may be screaming "Danger! Danger!" right now, I'm not expecting the league or its players to listen. There's seemingly no stopping them now, and an unprecedented summer of puck will soon be upon us.

You'd think last Friday might have been the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the inevitable full return of major pro sports in North America, with news that 11 NHL players have tested positive (out of approximately 200) since teams were allowed to open their facilities for voluntary skates on June 8. That includes several members of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had to abruptly shut down operations, and a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs identified by Postmedia as Auston Matthews.

As TSN's Travis Yost Tweeted over the weekend: "Not sure what momentum the NHL was looking for but 'Stanley Cup favourite closes camp because of coronavirus' followed by 'superstar in hockey's biggest market tests positive' on the same day probably ain't it."

It's just not a hockey issue. In the same 24-hour period, MLB halted training in Florida and Arizona due to a flurry of infections, numerous Texas-based NFL players were stricken, 23 Clemson football players tested positive and PGA Tour member Nick Watney had to withdraw in the middle of the RBC Heritage after he tested positive.

Several unidentified members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have the coronavirus. (Duane Burleson / The Associated Press files)

Several unidentified members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have the coronavirus. (Duane Burleson / The Associated Press files)

Throw in the fact many U.S. states have been setting new daily records for cases recently and the red flags are seemingly everywhere.

It feels as though we're at that point in a movie where the main characters are about to split up to go look for their missing friend. They know it's probably a bad idea, but they go ahead and do it anyways. In this case, it's not a chainsaw-wielding psychopath lurking in the woods that athletes have to worry about, but a coronavirus we're still in the early stages of learning about that has infected nine million people worldwide so far, killing more than 470,000.

And yet, the NHL and NHLPA continue moving forward. Starting Tuesday, groups of up to 12 players at a time will be allowed to skate at team facilities, up from the maximum of six. The league and players are also close to choosing two hub cities to host the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament later this summer. The original list of 10 has now been reduced to six, with Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto still hanging in along with favoured Las Vegas and two other U.S. locations.

Why anywhere south of the border would be considered at this stage is beyond me. Americans are putting on a clinic in how to bungle their way through a global health crisis, with more than 2.3 million cases and 122,000 deaths so far and a rapidly rising curve coming on the heels of what was clearly a completely mismanaged re-opening of society.

This explains why momentum has been growing in recent days to have not just one, but both playoff hosts here in Canada. It always made sense financially. Now it also makes sense from a health and safety perspective.

The NHL claims they're not so concerned about numbers within individual cities, given that they'll be forming their own protective bubble in which players will be extensively controlled and tested. Still, avoiding hot spots for hub cities should be a no-brainer. PGA pro Justin Thomas didn't mince words in blaming reckless citizens of Hilton Head, S.C. for Watney's COVID-19.

"It's an absolute zoo around here. There are people everywhere. The beaches are absolutely packed, every restaurant, from what I've seen when I've been driving by, is absolutely crowded. Unfortunately, that's not on Nick because I know he's very cautious and has done everything he can, but I would say a lot of people in this area of Hilton Head just aren't," said Thomas.

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman is determined to finish the season. (Stephen B. Morton / The Associated Press files)

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman is determined to finish the season. (Stephen B. Morton / The Associated Press files)

The recent wave of NHL-related infections underscores why it's important to isolate players as much as possible from the general public. At this stage, they're still free to come and go as they please, hitting up local establishments and inheriting the risks that come with those choices. We're all taking chances these days every time we leave the comfort of home, so it's not surprising that athletes would be a reflection of society right now.

Besides where they're going to play, the other big question is whether NHL players are willing to roll the dice on their health while living what will surely be extensive restrictions on their freedoms. COVID-19 is running the show here, and there's no way to keep it out entirely. There will be more positive tests to come even with comprehensive protocols which will probably look similar to those outlined in a 113-page document released by the NBA last week.

What's going to happen if a superstar gets sick in the middle of a playoff series? What if there's an outbreak within an entire team? Sure, most players will likely be asymptomatic, as the majority of otherwise healthy young males with no underlying medical issues appear to be, but what happens if someone gets hit hard by the virus, which is a possibility?

Players are being consulted every step of the way and will get to vote, perhaps as early as this week, on choosing the hub cities and moving ahead with plans for a two-week training camp starting around July 10 followed by the playoffs beginning in late July and running through early October.

I expect the vast majority will give the green light, with the ability to opt out if they choose. There's already rumblings in the NBA that some players may go that route, but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen in the NHL, often described as the ultimate team sport where athletes routinely play through numerous injuries and ailments.

The decision is in their hands, but with so much money at stake, not to mention some personal pride, catching a potentially deadly virus appears to be a risk they're willing to take.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.