How to avoid risking players' health in a restarted NHL season

How the NHL plans to make its return after COVID-19 (1:50)

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon break down the NHL's plan to resume its season in North Dakota and how the plan would impact the playoffs. (1:50)

NHL players are creatures of habit, living a regimented life of training, nutrition, rest and recovery. Their bodies are machines built to withstand an 82-game regular-season grind and whatever postseason action their team earns beyond it.

What Gary Roberts fears is that these machines aren't built for several months of home confinement, off the ice and on the couch.

"You have your whole summer. Everybody goes to the gym. Everybody prepares to play. Now you're in a situation where probably over a third of the NHL doesn't have the equipment they need to keep up with their fitness. And so that third of the NHL is, in my opinion, being put at risk when they go back and play," said Roberts, a 21-year NHL veteran who is now a renowned trainer to stars like Connor McDavid and Steven Stamkos.

"Well, if they do go back and play," he corrected himself. "Our whole world is dealing with a terrible threat right now."

That's undeniable. And it doesn't get more "First World problems" than asking how millionaire athletes will stay in shape during a global pandemic. But if the NHL wants to return to the ice in the summer to finish the regular season and/or the postseason, it's worth asking what kind of shape the players are going to be in, and what this layoff could mean for everything from competitive balance to their well-being.

The first issue is inconsistency. Many players have home gyms and workout equipment. But there are players in temporary or corporate housing that don't have those types of setups and rely on team facilities to stay in shape. Even if their condo or apartment complex has a gym, restrictions in major U.S. cities could mean those gyms are shuttered right now.

"If you're not strength training, you lose your strength, man. Three or four weeks of no strength training ... it's not going to be like players are going to be able to go into the gym for a week and then come back and play," Roberts said. "I tell them that if they can get outside, go find a hill and you can get some hill work in, because that's what we would do. If you can find a hill, at least you keep your cardio up."

Roberts has advised his clients to do what they can while stuck at home. This week, he and McDavid released a workout video aimed at children that features several different routines done without any equipment necessarily. It's a low-intensity version of the types of workouts Roberts has encouraged his players to try.

But there's no replacing what getting on the ice does for these players' fitness and skill sets.

"Hockey's a little different than other sports," Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer told me recently. "If you haven't been skating, it takes a while to get those skating legs back. And the timing of handling pucks and shooting and things like that. It's not like other sports where you can jump into it a little bit quicker. Or like basketball, where you can play it in your backyard in preparation for a season. We don't have access to ice. I doubt there's anybody skating right now. When that carries into a month or two months or three months, it's going to take some time to get that back."

But the other facet of keeping in game shape is what the players are putting into their bodies. Roberts gained fame for the strict diets he has set up for players like Stamkos. While he's concerned about what players might be eating and imbibing during this down time -- what, are they supposed to be eating a chicken breast with sweet potato while binging "Tiger King?" -- he's more concerned that their bodies are asking for fuel that the players aren't going to burn.

"They try to eat the foods that are a necessity. Your lean proteins, lots of veggies and fruits. But try to monitor your intake based on your level of activity. If you're not training hard and maintaining your level of activity ... it doesn't take long as a hockey player, whose appetite is enormous. So all of a sudden you shut down your activity, and it's hard to then shut down your appetite. You end up eating the same food, but your body's not burning it, so it's easy to put on weight as a hockey player," he said. "Usually hockey players eat more on their days off because they're trying to recover. But if you're not skating, you have to modify your intake. Because your body is still expecting all the sugars that you're burning. Your body is craving that stuff."

Access to the types of food they should be eating can be dictated by the coronavirus fallout, too. Restaurants are closed. Grocery stores are limited. Just like with the workout equipment and fitness options, it greatly depends on where you're hunkered down.

"On our end, we're doing what we can to keep these hockey players as close as we can to game shape. Some guys are in better situations than others," Roberts said. "Which is really unfair, when you think about it, right?"

That inequity is something the NHL is already cognizant about.

"Once we get to a point where restrictions are lifted in some markets but not in others, we have to give consideration to what's fair from a competitive standpoint, if we hope to resume to play this year," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio last weekend.

It's impossible to imagine every city in North America that houses an NHL team will have restrictions on travel, non-essential businesses and mass gatherings lifted at the same time. It's just not going to happen. The NHL knows this too, and it's going to be tricky not to give "certain clubs and player legs up over others," as Daly put it.

The NHL is considering any and all options when it comes to restarting the season. Whatever they settle on, the NHLPA has to sign off on it. And it's been made clear that the players want a ramp-up to a potential summertime Stanley Cup Playoffs, rather than jumping right into them.

McDavid might have said it best: "I don't think we can just step into playoffs, Game 1, Calgary comes to Edmonton, and guys are just running around killing each other and haven't played a game in two months. It'll end up being the Stockton Heat versus the Bakersfield Condors if that's the case," he said, referencing the Flames and Oilers' AHL teams. "We want to keep guys healthy, and we want to make sure everyone's up and ready to play some playoff hockey."

The NHL is listening. "You've heard it from the players who have spoken publicly on the subject: They'd like to avoid, if they can, having two and a half or three months off, coming back to a short training camp and all of a sudden they're playing in playoff games," Daly said. "We totally get that. We share that view. We do think there would be utility in playing out some portion of the regular season if we can do it."

No one's sure what the path ahead looks like, but the safety of the players is paramount. Not only in keeping them -- and, by proxy, their loved ones -- safe from infection in a restarted league. But in making sure that, after this unprecedented interruption to their professional routine, they're not at any physical risk in returning to the ice.

"They probably need a three-week training camp and a few games, and then playoffs. Or else sick bay is gonna be full," Roberts said.

Top three things about restarting the season

1. If the NHL is going to hold the Stanley Cup Playoffs in empty buildings, I absolutely love the idea of shifting the action to smaller venues like Ralph Engelstad Arena in North Dakota. Frankly, I think the idea of holding these games in cavernous, empty NHL buildings would only underscore that this isn't anything close to the playoffs we're used to seeing. Go small, and then do everything you can -- through lighting, sound, camera innovations, etc. -- to make the games made-for-television events without the benefit of spectators.

(That said: Still have the Kiss-Cam, but just keep showing different empty seats.)

2. It's a little melancholy to think about this past Saturday, which would have been the final day of the regular season. There were 30 teams scheduled to play, from noon through the night. Given the ridiculously small margins between teams on the playoff bubble, how many of those games would have been must-win? What are the chances that at least one of them would have given us a "win or go home" moment like the Flyers' shootout win over the Rangers in Game 82 a decade ago? The mind races ...

3. So how should the regular season end? One idea that has been kicked around, if there's no time to play out the regular season: Reducing the number of games played for teams down to 68, to make it all uniform.

Our friend Frank Seravalli put voice to this on TSN this week, citing the OHL as inspiration, as it used only the first 61 games of the season to seed its priority draft. "Under this plan, only each of the team's first 68 games of the season would count for the playoff standings. Eight teams would have three games negated, 11 teams, two each; and 10 teams, one each," he wrote.

While some of the seeding would change, the same 16 teams that would get in under a "points percentage" playoff would get in this way, too. But wow, does this methodology crack open some worm cans. Do stats from those games count toward season and career totals? Do fans get refunds for games that didn't actually count in the standings?

It's not the worst idea in the world for attempting to finish the season in an equitable way. But we're not sure it offers all that much more than points percentage seeding does. And the most equitable thing to do is to expand the playoff tournament this summer -- if they play.

Jersey Fouls

From the archives:

There isn't a more misunderstood player in the NHL than our sweet Phil Kessel, and apparently that goes for the U.S. national team, too.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

Brian Burke of Sportsnet joined us, and it was quite a conversation. He refuted a claim from former Bruins GM Mike O'Connell that Burke had "fabricated the details" of a Joe Thornton trade the Ducks pitched to Boston. He said the Stanley Cup Playoffs should be limited to eight teams if the season is restarted. He defended Phil Kessel's reputation. And he spilled details about the book he's writing. All of that, plus NHL playoff talk and interim coaches who may have secured their jobs. Listen, subscribe and review here.

Award winners of the week

(In lieu of our usual Winners and Losers, we're dedicated this space to the NHL Awards fan vote we conducted.)

The final NHL Awards Watch was published this week, and we turned the polling over to you on the major honors of the 2019-20 season. From the looks of it, many of you are from -- or have an affinity for -- the greater Boston area.

Hart Trophy: Leon Draisaitl, C, Edmonton Oilers
Did you get it right? Yes

Draisaitl (29%) just edged out David Pastrnak of the Bruins (26%) for MVP honors in the eyes of the readers. Nathan MacKinnon (19%) was a distant third. Pastrnak and Draisaitl are in the same boat, having teammates -- Connor McDavid and Brad Marchand -- that could make their own MVP pitches. Due to injuries, MacKinnon didn't this season, which is why he might still be my top choice. But between the two, I'd take Draisaitl's value over that of Pastrnak's.

Norris Trophy: John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Did you get it right? No

Carlson won with 41% of the vote to 24% for Roman Josi of the Predators, with Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues (14%) just edging Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (13%) for a distant third. But we think it's indisputable that Josi has been the better all-around defenseman this season. That he's only 10 points behind Carlson in scoring, considering the season the Capital has had, just goes to show how good he was in both ends.

Calder Trophy: Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche
Did you get it right? Sure

Makar (38%) beat out Vancouver's Quinn Hughes (30%) in a two-defensemen race for the Calder. Honestly, either one can win it and that would be fine. We're Team Hughes here, but there are no wrong answers between these two.

Vezina Trophy: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Did you get it right? No

Rask (37%) bested Connor Hellebuyck (30%) in the fan voting. Problem No. 1: Hellebuyck had a Vezina-worthy season behind a significantly worse team that lost four defensemen from last season's blue line before the puck was dropped on 2019-20. Problem No. 2: Rask played only 41 games. Obviously, without the season capped at 70 games, Rask would have played more. But Hellebuyck played a league-high 58 games, and the general managers who vote on this award usually favor a workhorse.

Selke Trophy: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Did you get it right? No

First, we think Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers (27%) will win this award, but Bergeron (38%) making the top three wouldn't be a surprise. The bummer here is that the player with the best Selke case -- Anthony Cirelli of the Lightning -- earned only 6% of the vote, lowest among the five choices.

Lady Byng Trophy: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Did you get it right? Sure

MacKinnon (42%) ran away with the vote, with 12 penalty minutes in 69 games. Sure, why not?

Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins
Did you get it right? Yes

Good arguments can be made for Mike Sullivan and John Tortorella and their injury-riddled teams, as well as the transformation of the Flyers under Alain Vigneault. But far too often, the coach of the best team in hockey doesn't get named the best coach. So Cassidy winning here would be unexpected, but deserved.

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