Food trucks, cannons and card tricks: A guide for a most unusual NHL post-season

The Stanley Cup playoffs start Saturday with 24 teams, two Canadian hubs and a long list of health and safety protocols. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about the NHL’s return:

The schedule

In each conference (Eastern teams in Toronto, Western clubs in Edmonton), the top four from the regular-season standings will start with a round robin to determine seeding for the next round. The remaining teams will play best-of-five qualifying series (5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, 8 vs. 9).

The Maple Leafs, eighth in the East, face No. 9 Columbus starting Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. Game 2 goes Aug. 4 at 4 p.m., followed by contests on Aug. 6 and, if necessary Aug. 7 and 9. The times beyond Game 2 had yet to be determined, but the Leafs were expecting a noon start at some point.

The other play-in matchups: Penguins-Canadiens, Hurricanes-Rangers, Islanders-Panthers, Oilers-Blackhawks, Predators-Coyotes, Canucks-Wild, Flames-Jets. Saturday’s five-game slate starts with the Canes and Rangers at noon.

Tentative start dates beyond the qualifiers: first round (Aug. 11); second round (Aug. 25); conference finals (Sept. 8 in Edmonton); Stanley Cup final (Sept. 22 in Edmonton).

The scene

In Toronto, the top five East seeds are staying at Hotel X, a modern facility famous for its rooftop bar and tennis courts on the CNE grounds. The other seven East clubs, including the Leafs, are staying at the Royal York. With Toronto FC and the Argonauts on hold, all teams have access to BMO Field, which has been set up for workouts, entertainment and relaxation.

At Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs can use their home dressing room for Game 1 against the Blue Jackets, but not the next two games. They’ll move to one of the visitors’ room, the Raptors’ room or the media dining room. In an attempt to balance out any home-ice advantage, the Columbus goal cannon will be heard when the Blue Jackets are the designated home team. Home-crowd chants will also be piped in, with no fans allowed during the pandemic.

The NHL says opening night will feature a “powerful” pre-game ceremony, with salutes to front-line workers and Black Lives Matter.

TV networks will use 12 more camera angles than usual per game.

Who’s in?

Each of the 24 teams brought up to 31 players into the hubs. The entire travelling party for each club — including executives, three coaches, two trainers, an equipment manager, therapist, massage therapists, social media content creator, security rep and a compliance officer — is limited to 52. Anyone who leaves the hub for personal or medical reasons must quarantine for at least four days upon returning.

The game

All series after the opening play-ins and round robin are best-of-seven. The seeding games among the top four in each conference (Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers in the East; Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights and Stars in the West) will use regular-season overtime and shootout rules. All other games will use playoff OT rules — play until someone scores.

There will be up to six games a day.

The conference finals and Stanley Cup final will be in Edmonton. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the Oilers’ Rogers Place arena was better equipped for the league’s needs than Scotiabank Arena.

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There are 20 on-ice officials in each hub city. They warmed up by trying out pea-less whistles during exhibition games, to reduce the risk of spreading droplets by blowing.

Health and safety

Players are tested daily, and the league has made provisions for up to 35,000 test kits at $125 each.

Social distancing is mandatory off the ice.

Masks have been provided. They aren’t required on the ice, on the bench or during exercise.

Bubble life

Players have their own single rooms — in Toronto, at the Royal York and Hotel X — cleaned by hotel staff every third day.

Families can’t visit until at least the conference finals in Edmonton.

Players brought assorted items to pass the time, including musical instruments. Leafs Auston Matthews and Alex Kerfoot have been practising card tricks. NHLers will also have access to entertainment, such as outdoor movie screenings, and food trucks.

After the first 14 days, players in Edmonton might be cleared to leave the secured hub for a safe excursion, such as golf.

Players will also have access to hotel restaurants, bars, room service and contactless delivery from local eateries. They can use hotel pools, but spas, steam rooms and saunas are off limits.

Mark Zwolinski


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