North American ice hockey league the NHL has spelled out its masterplan to resume its 2019-20 season by heading straight into an expanded playoffs, with 10 cities shortlisted to serve as two hubs for the action to take place.
The NHL, which includes 24 teams from the US and seven from Canada, has become the first American major league to set out a formal system for return to competition amid COVID-19. The NHL suspended its season on March 12 due to concerns over the pandemic, having played 85% of the 2019-20 regular-season schedule that started in early October.
Under the ‘Return to Play Plan’, the regular season has been declared concluded, with the 189 games originally scheduled from March 12 to April 4 not being played. A total of 24 teams will resume play made up of the top 12 in each Conference on the basis of points percentage at the point of suspension. This means the season ends for Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.
Since the League’s pause on March 12, the NHL has been in Phase 1 with teams having been instructed to self-isolate as much as possible. In early June, it is expected that teams will be permitted to return to home facilities in Phase 2 for small group, voluntary, and on- and off-ice training.
Not earlier than first half of July, Phase 3 is expected to commence where formal training camps will begin after guidance from medical and civil authorities. While the League hasn’t specified dates, Phase 4 would see the 24 teams compete in two hub cities in Seeding Round Robins, a Qualifying Round and Conference-based Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The two hub cities will be selected from among: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver. However, the potential for Canadian cities to be chosen is likely to be affected by the mandatory 14-day quarantine currently put in place by the country’s government.
Each Conference will be assigned a hub city with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation. Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in the hub city with only a small number of support staff permitted to enter the event areas. Timing and sites will be determined at a future date and will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations. When staged, games will be played behind closed doors.
“At the pause, we committed to resuming play only when appropriate and prudent,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “We are hopeful the Return To Play Plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount. Accordingly, an essential component of the Plan is a rigorous, regular schedule of testing.
“On the hockey side, the return-to-play format reflects the League’s extraordinary competitive balance while honouring the tradition and integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly added: “The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city. We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”
Bettman said that while a return to action is not guaranteed, he is hopeful the NHL can avoid the situation whereby the Stanley Cup won’t be awarded for only the third time in the League’s history. The Spanish flu put paid to the 1919 tournament, while the 2005 season was cancelled due to a player lockout.
He added: “While we are hopeful, it is our goal we will be able to resume play and award the Stanley Cup. We intend to do so within in a timeframe that will enable us to get back to a full calendar for the 2020-21 season.”
US tournament World TeamTennis (WTT) has said it will play the entirety of its 45th season at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, including allowing fans to attend the event.
The announcement comes with events sanctioned by the ATP and WTA men’s and women’s tours, along with the International Tennis Federation (ITF), suspended until at least late July because of COVID-19. However, WTT lies outside these and such it has stated it will be the first major professional tennis league to resume operations since the worldwide outbreak.
The 2020 WTT season will showcase a 63-match regular season over 19 consecutive days from July 12-30, with the WTT Playoffs to follow on August 1-2. WTT’s schedule will include at least three matches per day at The Greenbrier’s 2,500-seat outdoor stadium, with an indoor court to be installed as a backup option.
In accordance with state health guidelines, WTT will allow up to 500 fans (20% capacity) to attend its outdoor matches. WTT said it will engage with its teams and league and venue personnel in conducting all necessary testing and screening for COVID-19, as well as outfitting all parties with the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to conduct its 2020 season matches.
WTT CEO Carlos Silva said: “The overwhelming feedback from our players is that they want to play WTT and are comfortable in doing so in a safe environment, which is our number one priority. West Virginia has among the nation’s fewest cases of COVID-19 and I’m grateful to The Greenbrier, the city of White Sulphur Springs, and Dr. Jill Justice (Greenbrier president) for being so welcoming and allowing World TeamTennis to play on in 2020.”
WTT introduced the concept of professional team tennis in 1974, with the legendary Billie Jean King serving as its co-founder. In 2020, the Chicago Smash will join as the league’s ninth franchise, with prize money increased to a record $5m (£4.06m/€4.56m).
This year’s Australian Open champion and world No. 4, Sofia Kenin, along with 2017 U.S. Open champion and 2018 French Open finalist Sloane Stephens, are among the players to have signed up for the 2020 WTT.
Staying with tennis, Croatians Marin Cilic and Borna Coric have become the latest big-name signings for a new men’s Balkans tour being launched by world No.1 Novak Djokovic.
The Serbian star is behind the Adria Tour venture which will be held in cities across the region from June 13 to July 5. The Tour intends to commence in Belgrade, Djokovic’s home city, on June 13-14, concluding with an exhibition match in the Serbian capital on July 5 between the 17-time grand slam champion and Damir Dzumhur.
Zadar, Croatia (June 20-21); Montenegro (June 27-28); and Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina (July 3-4) have also been lined up for the Adria Tour, but the latter two events are dependent on infrastructure being ready in time.
In addition to Djokovic, who will play all the tournaments, the biggest star of the Tour is set to be Austria’s world No.3 Dominik Thiem. Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov and Serbia’s Viktor Troicki have also signed up.
Djokovic has said other major European players have committed to the charity tournament, the aim of which is to raise funds for humanitarian projects across the region, including the Novak Djokovic Foundation’s Early Childhood Development and Education programmes. At the same time, the organisers are seeking to help players get back in shape and gain access to competitive tennis amid COVID-19.
Organisers are also planning to provide tickets for the televised events, in the event local authorities allow fans to attend.