Although he hasn’t been able to play hockey for more than two months (and counting), Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has stayed plenty occupied while the NHL remains suspended over the novel coronavirus. Workouts are conducted in a “decent little basement space” at his Toronto house, where the 29-year-old center lifts weights and stick handles golf balls to stay sharp. New recipes are whipped up in the kitchen, meats are barbecued on the backyard grill, and family walks are taken around the neighborhood when the weather is nice. If this were an ordinary season, perhaps Tavares would still be competing in the playoffs right now, consumed by chasing a Stanley Cup with his hometown team. Instead he is relishing all the extra quality time with wife Aryne and infant son Jace, who recently celebrated his eight-month birthday.
“The little guy started crawling this week,” Tavares says. “That’s been a game-changer.”
Not long ago, Tavares’s agenda was made even busier when he accepted an invitation to serve on the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee, a working group of a dozen or so players and executives—including commissioner Gary Bettman, players’ association head Donald Fehr and Oilers star Connor McDavid—tasked with mapping out scenarios for the league’s resumption … whenever that ultimately may be. Early on, Tavares reports, the committee was holding two to three Zoom meetings a week, ranging from 20-minute check-ins to wide-ranging discussions that ticked past an hour and a half. Lately, though, “the frequency of calls has certainly picked up quite a bit,” he says in an interview. “We’re getting closer to [having them] every other day now, as we try to create some clarity, as best as we can, on many fronts for everyone involved in the hockey world, which would be a really positive thing.”
For now, the NHL remains far away from dropping the puck on its 2019–20 season again. Team facilities are still largely closed by league mandate, self-quarantining is still recommended, and many international players are still overseas at their offseason homes. Even so, Tavares describes a “great sense of urgency” among himself and fellow Return to Play Committee members “to hone in on what the competitive format’s going to be, to give everyone a sense of what it could look like when we get back. Obviously when [exactly] that will be, we don’t know … But in terms of how to finish the season, and how to award the Stanley Cup, I think we want to get something figured out soon.”
In particular, Tavares cites a “24-team concept” as one that’s been “kicked around the most” on the committee’s most recent calls. Under this scenario, round-robin games would be held at geographically based hub sites—to help determine seeding and to help players ease back into competition—followed by an expanded playoff format. “Certainly there’s still a priority to finish the regular season and play the playoffs,” Tavares says, “but as time goes by, you have to consider all our options with the information we have. The 24-team concept has been brought up quite a bit. But there’s been other concepts, other numbers of teams. We’ve thrown around everything. Nothing’s been decided on.”