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NHL players flock back to team cities in anticipation of upcoming season

Even without an agreement in place, the migration is on.

NHL players have started flooding back into their playing cities in anticipation of a season that is expected to see training camps open early in the new year, particularly those coming from Europe.

Joe Thornton ended his stint with HC Davos in Switzerland and boarded a flight to Toronto on Monday. That came one day after his Maple Leafs teammate Rasmus Sandin travelled back from his native Sweden. Last week Jacob Markstrom, Elias Lindholm and Joakim Nordstrom made their way to Calgary together.

The players are choosing to come back on their own.

Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin posts a photo in an airport on Instagram.

With the NHL and NHL Players Association still in negotiations on protocols, critical dates and transition rules, there’s been no official edict given. The sides are hoping to finalize a plan for the 2020-21 season in the coming days that can be ratified by owners and players before the end of the week.

In the meantime, some teams have quietly encouraged players to get back and serve their quarantines as soon as possible. If everything goes well, the industry will go from a crawl to a sprint in a matter of weeks — with the possibility of training camps starting Jan. 3 and a 56-game season beginning on Jan. 13.

That anticipated schedule will require many players to miss spending Christmas with family, which is why some like the Sandins have already held early celebrations. Last week, the 20-year-old defenceman told Sportsnet that he was eager to return to Toronto to get his quarantine completed early.

“I don’t feel like I want to wait too much longer because I want to get back into it and be well ready for camp,” Sandin said. “I don’t want to come in and just arrive the day before, coming out of my quarantine the day before camp starts.

“I want to be ahead of time.”

Sandin flew back from Stockholm on Sunday.

With time of the essence, there’s little risk in travelling early. The length of quarantine varies by region but players must at least produce four negative COVID-19 test results in seven days to satisfy NHL requirements.

There isn’t believed to be anything likely to derail negotiations that have intensified over the last week after the financial aspect of the agreement was settled.

The NHL and NHLPA have been going back and forth on protocols for what promises to be a unique season. They must contemplate everything from rules governing expanded rosters and taxi squads to how they handle potential outbreaks and postponed games to what the realigned divisions will look like.

Once the agreement is finalized, it will be put to a vote by the NHL’s Board of Governors and NHLPA’s Executive Board.

Many players aren’t waiting for that process to play out.

Instead they’re getting on planes, going into quarantine and anticipating the puck dropping for real inside the next four and a half weeks.

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