You can’t call it a home-ice advantage, as the Toronto Maple Leafs, like other 11 Eastern Conference teams, are going to be physically confined within “the bubble” and playing in front of empty seats at Scotiabank Arena.
But recent reports indicate the city of Edmonton and the city of Toronto are moving ahead as the Western and Eastern hubs, respectively, for Phase 4 of the NHL’s Return-to-Play plans, pending NHLPA ratification of the stage-four plan as well as the small matter of a Collective Bargaining Agreement extension. The latest from The Athletic suggests an “NHL village” of sorts will be set up around Toronto’s Exhibition grounds, an area that includes BMO Field, Hotel X, the OVO Athletic Centre, and Coca-Cola Coliseum. We can also assume a number of restaurants and other amenities in the area will be essentially taken over by the NHL for the duration of the playoff tournament.
NHL Playoff Hub: Exhibition Grounds Map
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There is no real “home-ice advantage” amid this unprecedented playoff tournament this summer, and all players will be facing the same adjustment to a bizarre set of living conditions over the weeks-long — potentially months-long — duration of the playoffs. But where it does seem to benefit the Maple Leafs is in reducing the risk exposure from the initial travel to the hub city, as well as the team’s familiarity with their surroundings in the Exhibition grounds, the arena, the hockey rink itself, and proximity to friends and family — if and when they receive the green light to enter the bubble. With some notable players in the NBA and MLB opting out of the resumption of their 2020 seasons (a personal decision for themselves and their families that should be treated with respect), perhaps the close-to-home factor eases some of the understandable anxieties around participating in a return to play.
The buzz within the city of a summer Leafs playoff run will filter through to the team more indirectly, given the amount of media attention and the local staff they’ll still be dealing with within the campus that NHL intends to set up for its players and personnel in and around the Exhibition grounds downtown — and no doubt the team will see the flags hanging from buildings and hear the car horns honking downtown after a big Leafs playoff win, as well as the social-media footage of the nearby patio and (hopefully small/responsible) game-viewing gatherings.
There is no doubt the NHL appears to have taken the safest, most common-sense route in opting for two Canadian hubs amid the COVID-19 numbers we’re seeing in the U.S. generally and particularly within once-heavily-favored Las Vegas. A question that looms large here, however, among many: After several weeks where Toronto seemed to be on the outside looking in as a potential hub city, and Vancouver — where COVID-19 has been managed with considerable (relative) success — was viewed as a heavy favourite, what satisfied Toronto health officials about the NHL’s plan for managing the positive-test eventuality that apparently didn’t pass muster with Vancouver health officials?
We’ve been told the positive-test count among the league’s players is somewhere in the mid-20s through Phase 2 to date as of a few days ago, without much in the way of updates on how serious any of those cases may be. Even before the league travels to and takes up residence in its hub cities, a major stress test for the NHL’s return-to-play plan comes in the upcoming Phase 3 training camps, where teams will gather (in full, after practicing for the last several weeks in small-group environments) across 24 different cities in North America. 18 of those cities are in the U.S., where the pandemic continues to ravage many states, including heavily-affected Florida (Tampa Bay Lightning & Florida Panthers), Texas (Dallas Stars), and Arizona (Arizona Coyotes). Phase 3 going off without a hitch, relatively speaking — God willing, without any serious health situations for all the players and personnel involved — is obviously critical to actually moving ahead with Phase 4, and certainly will impact the number of players that are going to commit to or opt out of taking part.
Phase 3 could proceed as soon as the 10th of July, with some possibility we’re looking at the 13th as the new target date, according to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet. Major hurdles are still ahead — and given the reality of life since mid-March, it’s going to be hard to envision this thing really going down before we see it with our own eyes — but it looks like we’ve now got the “where,” even with many questions still remaining around the “how” and “why?”
24-Team NHL Playoff Tournament Format
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