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Chicago could be a hub city to host the 24-team NHL playoffs. But only if it meets the league’s safety criteria for COVID-19.

Chicago and Los Angeles were surprise additions to the list of finalists vying to host the NHL playoffs, but it could be a challenge meeting the league’s criteria for the two cities that will act as hubs.

The league confirmed Tuesday that 24 teams — including the Chicago Blackhawks — will qualify for the postseason, which will be greatly modified because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“We are excited that the Chicago Blackhawks will be among the teams that will compete for the Stanley Cup, per the National Hockey League’s Return to Play Plan announced today," the Hawks said in a statement Tuesday. “That alone is great for our fans, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. We are also proud that Chicago, including our home arena the United Center, is being considered as one of the two possible hub cities as part of the league’s plan.

“Moving forward, we will stay in close communication with the NHL, the city of Chicago and state leaders to ensure safety protocols for our players and staff are met. We anticipate a controlled conditioning phase followed by a formal training camp.”

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Commissioner Gary Bettman laid out many of the conditions cities will have to satisfy before two are chosen to host 12 teams each from the Eastern and Western conferences, but the two biggest hurdles will be testing and new cases.

Local authorities likely will have to show signs infection rates are dropping — and the league will be on alert for new waves of the disease — as well as demonstrate they can provide enough daily COVID-19 tests for the players, and that the demand won’t come at the expense of the community.

“The reason there are so many cities still in contention is we didn’t want to be in a situation with things in the world moving so quickly, changing from day to day, we didn’t want to get locked in,” Bettman said. “We don’t want to go to a place where there’s a lot of COVID-19, we don’t want to go to a place where we can’t get the testing we need and where there’d be extensive testing. ... Health and safety is the most important thing, so there must be test available on a wide-scale basis without disrupting any medical needs.

“We could be doing 25,000 to 30,000 tests."

Cook County and Los Angeles County are first and fourth in number of confirmed cases by county (excluding New York City) with more than 73,800 and 47,800, respectively, according to data from their public health agencies.

The two counties have a lower rate of infection per capita than many heavily populated East Coast counties, but they’re more of a hot spot than Pittsburgh and Las Vegas, both of which are in contention to serve as hubs.

Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis and Tampa are the other American cities in the running, and Canada’s hopes rest with Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton.

However, Bettman said if Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine remains in place by the time the season resumes, possibly in mid- to late July, it would be a deal breaker for that country’s hub city candidates.

“We are talking to the Canadian government about it,” Bettman said. “… We’re probably three weeks or more away from having to make a decision.”

League officials also have to consider each city’s arena, training facilities, transportation, hotel space and other factors.

The league’s currently in phase one (of four), in which players have been asked to self-quarantine and hope to enter phase two — in which players organize into small groups for voluntary workouts by early June.

Teams would begin training camp in phase three, no earlier than July 1 and under the guidance of medical and public health authorities.

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Bettman estimated that camp would begin in mid-July but left open the possibility of shifting the date based on feedback from players about how much time they need to get into form.

“If it has to slide more, then it will slide,” he said.

Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford guards the net against the Ducks on March 3, 2020, at the United Center.
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford guards the net against the Ducks on March 3, 2020, at the United Center. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Once teams’ three-week training camps are completed, perhaps by late July or early August, the league moves into the fourth and final phase: the playoffs.

The top four teams from each conference will play a round-robin tournament to determine the seeding. Their regular-season record (by points percentage) will settle any ties.

Meanwhile, the Hawks and 15 other teams will play in the qualifying round. The Hawks draw Edmonton in a five-game series.

If the Blackhawks win, their next opponent depends on whether the league re-seeds the field — as many players have said they prefer — or sticks with a traditional bracket.

Bettman said he’d likely go with players’ wishes.

For the Hawks, the team was a long shot as of March 11, the last day of games before the NHL shut down, and now they’re playoff-bound.

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