The National Hockey League recently released its Return to Sport guidelines for Phases 3 and 4. Phase 3 covers practices in each team’s respective city. Phase 4 shifts the action to the league’s host cities – at this point, expected to be Edmonton and Toronto. That’s when the on-ice officials get involved. Here’s how they’re impacted.
NHL Referee and Linesmen Playoff Cuts
When the regular season ends, the league cuts back the officiating roster from 34 referees and 34 linesmen to 20 of each. With the 2019-20 season officially over, the league is making those cuts prior to the start of the postseason play-in. Twenty officials – 10 referees and 10 linesmen – will be assigned to each city for the playoffs. The NHL will reduce the officiating pool round by round, as has been done in the past. No further cuts are expected to be made until the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been completed.
There’s been no word on additional standby officials, who may be included in each location for emergencies. With half of the officiating roster at each site and no travel required, it’s likely other officials already in the rotation will be expected pick up in case of illness or injury. That approach would be similar to what we see in IIHF tournaments.
With three games per day per site on the tentative schedule, that puts six referees and six linemen on duty, with four of each available on standby – plenty to ensure coverage while maintaining a rotation.
Officials Training Camp
The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that there will be no training camp for the league’s referees and linesmen. They may be slated to arrive early to skate and exercise, as well as to officiate some scrimmages prior to the official resumption of play.
Despite any formal camp, we’d expect the officials and officiating managers at each site to be in constant communication with regular meetings. Much like the Olympics, this is a unique opportunity where the team of officials is in place together, which may offer some benefits from a consistency and feedback standpoint.
NHL referees and linesmen will not be required to wear face coverings during games. Neither will players or coaches.
Off-ice officials working in the penalty box during games will be mandated to wear gloves and a face covering.
Since NHL referees and linesmen fly commercial airlines, they have to follow a more stringent travel protocol than the players.
Officials are advised to “adhere to diligent preventative measures (e.g., strict social distancing, use of masks, frequent hand washing)” two weeks prior to traveling, then staying home and avoiding unnecessary interactions the week leading up to their departure. They’ll also be required to be PCR tested three times prior to heading to their hub city.
PCR (polymerise chain reaction) tests are used to detect the RNA or genetic information of the virus, which is only possible with someone is actively infected.
Once they arrive, it’s more testing, with daily PCR tests, along with a four-day quarantine in their hotel room until their tests are confirmed negative. Officials will be asked to remain in their rooms as much as possible for three additional days.
Home Sweet Phase 4 Secure Zone
NHL officials are part of Group 1, which includes “persons who are the core playing group, and those persons essential to support the core playing group.” Also included are players, team personnel, event-level staff, leage representative, medical staff, and others with regular interaction with the others in this group.
Everyone in Group 1 will stay in the Secure Zone Hotel. Teams will each get their own dedicated floor(s). Here’s hoping the officials get one to themselves as well. They’ll be staying one to a room – no roommates here – so they’ll need a block of, at minimum, 20 rooms, not counting the league’s officiating managers.
After the playoffs move to a single site for the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, players’ families will be able to come stay at the hotel, subject to the same requirements and testing as the players. No word on whether that offer extends to the officials’ families as well.
Referees and linesmen will have access to the hotel’s fitness center, but they’re going to have to share it.
A daily schedule for the use of the hotel fitness center by individuals staying in the Phase 4 Secure Zone shall be established by the League. The schedule shall allocate appropriate and sufficient time for Players to work out, and for NHL staff and for other Phase 4 personnel to work out, respectively and separately, and for all equipment to be disinfected by staff before and after each use.
Hotel restaurants, lounges, and pools will also be open, with the requirement that all follow safe social distancing guidelines.
Distancing and Masks
All individuals in Group 1, including the officials, will be required to wear masks at all time outside of their hotel rooms, aside from limited situations including exercising and eating, and to maintain six feet of social distancing as much as possible.
Testing and Screening
Officials, like others in Group 1, will be subject to PCR tests and temperature/symptom checks on a daily basis.
An official who shows symptoms would be required to self-isolate until tested. If the test is negative, that individual would continue to remain isolated until a subsequent test 24 hours later also comes back negative.
If an official tests positive, he would undergo treatment and ongoing testing, requiring full medical clearance prior to returning to participation. That would include a 14-day ban on exercising, multiple retests, and a cardiac screening before being ruled as fit to return to play.
With a limited pool of officials sequestered, it would make sense for the league to ensure some of the zebras remain secure as standby officials throughout the postseason. While injuries are rare, illness is certainly a greater risk this time around, since one positive test can effectively remove an official from an entire playoff round or more.
Phase 4 kicks in on July 26, when the teams head to the hub cities to begin play. The puck is slated to drop on August 1. Stay safe out there, boys.