After a positive test to Leafs Matthews, the NHL should think about taking a step back

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It’s all fun and games until a Rocket Richard Trophy finalist contracts COVID-19.As first reported by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun Friday, Auston Matthews has been tested positive for novel coronavirus. Not Austin Watson. Not Zachary Aston-Reese. Not a person. A star who has flirted with 50 goals this year.

This is the NHL’s worst fear. This is what could prevent the season from the conclusion of — never mind re-opening in a few weeks.

Matthews, whose mustachioed face is on the cover of the NHL, 20 years old, is the best player in the biggest market in the NHL. And now, he is also the poster boy for what can go wrong if the NHL is returning before it is safe to do so.

One by one, the dominoes are starting to fall. This is not just Matthews. The Tampa Bay Lighting, who can be contenders to win the Stanley Cup, have been forced to temporarily close their practice facility on Friday after at least three team members and additional staff members have been tested positive for COVID-19.

Coupled with Matthews test positive, he has easily been the worst day since the league has had to close its doors on March 12. According to the NHL, more than 200 players have been tested since Phase 2 opened on June 8 to 11, which has been tested positive.

Even if most — if not all — of these cases occurred in the south of the border, it is still an alarming number. More and more, it starts to feel as if all the progress that has been made over the last three months has been ruined by the equivalent of a trip to the hair salon.

The league, which was the intention of finishing the season, is to look at what happened in the last two weeks, and I wonder if it has not may be jumping the gun. It’s certainly starting to look that way.

The cases are not down to as fast as anyone wanted. If anything, with each step before the NHL took, the coronavirus is to push things back two, three steps back.

And yet NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Postmedia Friday, “there is no new or different at this point. We are still hoping to be in a position to open the (training) camps, 10 July.”

But there is no doubt that these positive points, the tests have served as a wake-up call for the NHL. As it is, both the league and the NHLPA are waiting to see what the next few days will bring. In Arizona, where he had been training, and Florida have become the hot spots for the virus, so the hope is that these were isolated incidents, where the positive cases have recently enriched.

Maybe things will be more secure in a few weeks from now, when everything is centralized in two hub cities and the league to better control where the players eat, sleep and interact.

Maybe.

Or maybe all this is inevitable. As he tries to put safeguards in place — the NHL issued a detailed 22-page memorandum on discipline, step by step, the procedures of Phase 2, including how many players were allowed in the practice of the facility at a time, for how long they have been allowed to be there, testing and cleaning requirements, and much more — there is only so much the league can control.

There are going to be positive cases. And if they get out of hand, there is no way the NHL can continue with its plans to Phase 3. If anything, the league should think about to reverse course and go back to Phase 1 until he manages to take control of an out-of-control virus.

It will probably not be the case, of course. As Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman have repeatedly said, one or two positive cases will not be enough to stand in the way of the awarding of the Stanley Cup this year. There is too much money tied up in the playoffs.

But this kind of playoffs will be the NHL if it has not its stars?

In a few weeks, Matthews should be free of any virus, just in time for the start of training camp. The same goes for the rest of the Lightning players. They probably do not want to miss any time. But can you imagine what the reaction would be if this happened a month from now?

What happens if Sidney Crosby also gets COVID-19? How about Connor McDavid? What if the virus made its way into the locker room of the Boston Bruins during the Stanley Cup final?

What then?

This is not a pulled groin or a shoulder separation. It is not even a concussion. This is not some hockey-related injury that comes with the territory. It is preventable.

We are already in the fastening of an asterisk to the Stanley Cup this year, with some jokingly calling it the COVID of the Cup. But if a team ends up losing the championship because he has lost a player for the coronavirus, then you might as well not even price.

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