The rise in COVID-19 cases is becoming an increasing concern throughout the NHL.
In just over 36 hours (from early Monday to Tuesday evening), nearly 30 players and staff members were added to the league’s COVID-19 protocols. Tuesday’s game between the Minnesota Wild and Carolina Hurricanes was postponed because of COVID-19, one day after the Calgary Flames’ season was put on pause amid an organizational outbreak.
The situation is subject to change at any time. Here, Emily Kaplan, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski, answer some of the questions about where the NHL is at, what might be in store for the season and how COVID-19 worries could impact the NHL’s Olympics participation.
How many games have been postponed so far this season?
Greg Wyshynski: As of Tuesday night, the NHL has postponed nine games this season because of “mini-clusters” of outbreaks on four specific teams. The Ottawa Senators had three games postponed (at New Jersey, at home against the Nashville Predators and New York Rangers) from Nov. 16-20. The New York Islanders had two road games scratched on Nov. 28 (Rangers) and 30 (Philadelphia Flyers).
The NHL paused the Calgary Flames’ season before the team was about to embark on a U.S. road trip, postponing games in Chicago on Monday and Nashville on Tuesday as well as a home game against Toronto on Thursday. Finally, the Carolina Hurricanes’ game at the Minnesota Wild was postponed Tuesday.
Will the NHL/NHLPA be altering the protocols because of this?
Emily Kaplan: The NHL is implementing enhanced protocols through at least Jan. 7, sources told ESPN Wednesday afternoon.
The decision came after the NHL, NHLPA and their doctors held conference calls on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, following a rash of COVID cases across the league.
Under the enhanced protocols — which NHL players experienced for all of last season — players will be tested daily instead of every third day, according to sources. All team personnel will be required to wear face masks at facilities, meetings will be held virtually, and everyone will be asked to limit all social interactions outside of the hotel, rink or home. The NHL currently only has one player who is not vaccinated, Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi.
The NHL has recommended the booster shot, and many players have already received it. However the league does not intend to mandate a booster shot at this time, sources tell ESPN.
Is there a chance the league hits pause on the season again?
Emily Kaplan: As of now, the NHL is not considering a pause. The league views that as a last resort. Especially since most players who are testing positive have mild to no symptoms, the league is figuring out a way to play through the rash of cases.
Who are some of the players/coaches in COVID protocol right now?
ESPN.com: Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett was placed in protocol after the team’s loss Tuesday night. A number of Carolina Hurricanes players, including Sebastian Aho, are currently in protocol and the team’s game Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild was postponed. Boston Bruins forwards Brad Marchand and Craig Smith were placed in protocol on Tuesday and Patrice Bergeron was added Wednesday.
The Calgary Flames have had a number of players in the protocol and have had three games postponed. They added 17 total team members to the league’s protocols on Wednesday, including head coach Darryl Sutter (seven players, three coaches and seven support staff members).
How does the current flurry of players and staff entering COVID-19 protocol compare to what we saw last season?
Kristen Shilton: The situation this season is quite different from last season’s.
First of all, the entire NHL is vaccinated, save for Detroit Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who has refused to receive the vaccine. So while players and staff members have tested positive, the symptoms being reported by individuals have widely been either very mild or nonexistent.
By comparison, when COVID-19 ripped through 25 members of the Vancouver Canucks’ organization last spring, several players and coach Travis Green were felled by debilitating symptoms.
Some players, like Milan Lucic, have also received their booster shots already (although Lucic still tested positive this week). More players may follow suit and receive their third doses sooner rather than later.
To that end, fully vaccinated players and employees haven’t been subject to the same rigorous protocols as they were before. Last season, dressing rooms were more spaced out, players were expected to be masked at all times and to practice physical distancing. Now, fully vaccinated players are not beholden to those same parameters, which doesn’t help at times like these, when the virus is suddenly spreading rapidly.
Then, of course, there’s more travel for every NHL team this season. That results in more interactions with other people, more potential spread and more difficulties with containment.
And as one player noted Tuesday night, many guys have partners and children in contact with more people than they were last year. Schools have been back in session across the board and some offices have reopened. Those interactions create more potential exposures for players that weren’t there before, when virtual learning and work from home was prominent.
Basically, there’s no single culprit in this. But it may benefit the NHL to ramp up protocols again until the spread of the coronavirus settles down.
What happens when a player for an American team tests positive in Canada, or vice versa?
Kristen Shilton: There are different provisions in Canada vs. the U.S. if a player/staff member tests positive.
The NHL’s COVID-19 protocol dictates that wherever a person is when they test positive is where that person must quarantine at the designated local hotel. However, the Canadian government requires a 14-day quarantine for any positive test. For example, Carolina Hurricanes forwards Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis plus a team staffer were forced to remain in Vancouver (and potentially stay there for two weeks) after testing positive during the Hurricanes’ stop against the Canucks.
By comparison, when Hurricanes teammates Jordan Staal, Andrei Svechnikov, Ian Cole and Steven Lorentz subsequently tested positive in Minnesota, they were sent to isolate in a hotel only “for the time being,” according to the team.
As of Wednesday morning, the Hurricanes were developing a plan that could potentially involve using emergency medical transport to return the trio in Vancouver to Raleigh. The hope would be to settle on a way forward in the next day or so, but it remains a tricky situation to manage.
Hurricanes’ GM Don Waddell told The Athletic on Tuesday that as far as getting everyone back home, “Those are details we’re working on right now, because now we’ve got three guys there and four guys in Minnesota. Maybe we can bring them all home together.”
What’s the current thinking on Olympic participation?
Greg Wyshynski: From the NHL’s perspective, the players’ participation in the Beijing Olympics was collectively bargained last year, and they’re sticking to that commitment — provided there isn’t a “material disruption” for the 2021-22 regular season because of COVID-19. Bettman said the league would pull the chute on their participation “if it became clear that we couldn’t reschedule without doing something else, including [using] some portion of the break.” The NHL isn’t saying what its threshold is for a “material disruption” of the season, except that we’re not there yet.
From the players’ perspective, the concern is about getting COVID-19 while participating in the Olympics. According to the current “playbook” given to athletes by the Beijing Organizing Committee, a symptomatic player would be taken to a hospital there, while an asymptomatic player would go to an isolation center.
Asymptomatic athletes will be discharged after two consecutive negative COVID-19 test results at least 24 hours apart if they continue to exhibit no symptoms, although they’ll face increased COVID-19 protocols. But it’s the athletes who exhibit symptoms who could be in for a rather lengthy stay in China.
Athletes can be discharged from the hospital when their body temperature returns to normal for three consecutive days; their respiratory symptoms improve significantly, including documented improvement through lung imaging; they have two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests within 24 hours of each other; and they exhibit no other COVID-19 symptoms. After that, they’ll still need a Chinese medical expert panel’s approval to be discharged.
While it’s not spelled out in the playbook, the NHLPA has communicated to players that the quarantine time for a symptomatic player in a hospital could be between three weeks and five weeks. Granted, recovery time could be faster, but this is the realistic range the players are hearing from the union — especially since any discharge from quarantine requires the medical panel’s approval.
That could mean over a month and a half away from loved ones in a quarantine facility in China, but it could also have a significant financial impact. Per the NHL and NHLPA agreement, players who contract COVID-19 while in Beijing will not be paid for any missed practices or games after the NHL Olympic break. There’s an International Ice Hockey Federation fund, reportedly worth $5 million, to cover that lost salary. But once that’s gone, players wouldn’t be compensated for lost time.
The NHLPA is still waiting to hear from the Beijing organizers on a few matters, like the location of these quarantine facilities. But it’s also waiting to get clarity on whether an infected athlete — or an injured one — can leave China to rehab back in North America.
What are the critical dates for an Olympic decision?
Greg Wyshynski: It was believed that Jan. 10, 2022, was going to be a critical date on NHL participation, as any pullout following that day would mean financial penalties for the league. But deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Jan. 10 “has to do with financial responsibility for costs at that given point and time,” and that a decision can be made beyond that date.
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr hopes for clarity by Jan. 10. “I would like to be able to say by that date. But even if it’s yes, it’s contingent on nothing changing [after that],” he said. “The plan is now that we go, unless something happens which causes us to reassess.”
Of course, the longer this uncertainty goes, the more participating nations in the Beijing men’s hockey tournament need to formulate a Plan B. Team USA GM Bill Guerin and his team are keeping an eye on AHL and NCAA players and those who play in international leagues for a hastily constructed alternate team — although they obviously hope the NHL players are the ones making the trip. For Canada, look no further than the upcoming Channel One Cup for a glimpse at what their Plan B roster could look like: former NHLers like Ryan Spooner, Eric Fehr and Jason Demers, led by former Canadiens coach Claude Julien and Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton.
How much ‘wiggle room’ is left in the schedule for additional postponed games?
Greg Wyshynski: Some will be made up in the course of the season. Of the nine games postponed as of Tuesday night, two had been rescheduled. Unfortunately, the Olympic break provides the most room to wiggle. The NHL decided not to pad the end of its season with time to make up postponed games, as it did in the 2021 season. The last day of the regular season is April 29. The Stanley Cup playoffs begin on May 2. That date could be fluid, but in the first year of a new television deal with two U.S. networks, it’s probably not ideal to push the postseason any further into the summer. Currently, June 30 is the date for a potential Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final.
How much could the league cram into the Olympic break? There is a “shadow schedule” created by the NHL that includes a one-week break — gotta allow those non-Olympic, non-All-Star players their planned trips to Maui with the fam — and some games move up from later in the season. But building availability is a problem. The NHL encouraged its arenas not to book events during the Olympic break, on the off chance the players don’t go to Beijing. But arenas have been taking massive financial hits during the pandemic, too, and used that time to reschedule tours and book other acts.
Madison Square Garden, for example, has 11 concerts from artists ranging from Billie Eilish to Elton John, plus three Knicks games during the NHL break. Staples Center has 16 events, including Lakers and Clippers games and three days of concerts held in conjunction with the Super Bowl.
What are the players saying about going to the Olympics? Has anyone else opted out?
Kristen Shilton: At this point, only goalie Robin Lehner — a lock for Team Sweden — has publicly stated he would decline an invitation to participate in the Olympics.
But other stars around the league have begun commenting on some of the uncertainty and the possibility of a lengthy quarantine in China amid rising COVID-19 cases.
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, one of three players already named to Team Canada, told reporters on Tuesday that when it comes to the Olympics, “It’s obviously going to be a very fluid situation. There hasn’t been a ton of information [coming] out, and then there’s that three- to five-week [quarantine] thing. It’s kind of been floating around. Obviously, it’s unsettling if that were to be the case when you go over there.”
Still, the desire to represent his country remained strong for McDavid.
“I’m still a guy that’s wanting to go play in the Olympics,” he said. “But we also want to make sure it’s safe for everybody. For all the athletes, not just for hockey players.”
Alex Pietrangelo, who was also named to Team Canada, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday his concerns are mounting.
“I’ve got four kids that are under the age of three and a half,” he said. “For me to be potentially locked up there for five weeks plus the Olympics, that’s a long time being away from my family. I’m not going to make a decision until we get all the answers, because those are kind of hard to come by right now. So, we’re all kind of sitting and waiting.”
Also on Monday, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, who was selected to Team Canada for the 2014 Games in Sochi, shared his own hesitation about going to Beijing.
“I think we all hope to go, but clearly I think things are a little bit more uneasy than they were,” he told reporters. “There are definitely some questions that we want to look into and have answered. Obviously there’s going to be some hurdles and some challenges with where things stand. I’m probably a little more uneasy than I was a number of weeks ago, or a few months ago.”
Meanwhile, Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson, likely in the mix for Sweden, told reporters Wednesday that if things remain the same as far as a quarantine in China for those who test positive, he “likely won’t be going” to the Olympics.
It seems likely more players will continue chiming in after the recent wave of positive cases throughout the NHL.