The NHL’s abridged 56-game 2021 season is up and running. But there have been a few COVID-19 related speed bumps along the way, particularly with the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals.
Here’s everything you need to know about how the virus is impacting the hockey season, and what comes next.
When did COVID-19 first affect the season?
Before it started. Daily testing began in training camp and just a few days in, there was already an outbreak on the defending Western Conference champion Dallas Stars. According to the league, 17 members of the Stars tested positive for COVID-19, which forced the team to shut down its facilities for several days. The NHL said that most of the Dallas players were asymptomatic and that all of them “are currently recovering without complication.”
The Stars were forced to postpone their first four games — two each against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning — and will begin their season Friday night against the Nashville Predators. The four games were rescheduled for February and May, which includes a game on May 10 — two days after the season was originally supposed to end. When creating the schedule, the NHL allowed some cushion time before the playoffs needed to begin, to allow for this type of flexibility.
Have there been more postponements since?
There is also a situation brewing on the Carolina Hurricanes, which forced four of their games to be postponed. Five players — forwards Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen, Warren Foegele and Jordan Martinook, and defenseman Jaccob Slavin — were listed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list. In a conference call on Thursday, Canes GM Don Waddell said the league was working on rescheduling games and sounded confident it would happen, though his team’s remaining schedule just became tighter. (Though not too tight; the GM said the league had a “strong opinion” to avoid teams having to play three games in three nights.)
Waddell was cagey with details about which players may have contracted the virus, and when asked how the spread may have occurred, he said: “If we could figure out where it’s coming from I think there would be a lot of sports teams that would be very happy.”
What is the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list?
Now that we’re in the regular season, the NHL is releasing the identity of players who have been put on something called the COVID-19 protocol list. That doesn’t necessarily mean the player has a positive confirmed test; a player could land on the list for several reasons, ranging from a positive test to required quarantine due to close contact. If a player ends up on the list while on a road trip, he is required to stay in isolation until he is cleared to travel.
“We have guys sitting in Nashville in a hotel room that can’t leave their room,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Thursday. “It’s brutal.”
Again, the NHL knew the prevalence of cases would be an inevitable, especially in a non-bubble environment. As Brind’Amour stated on Thursday, the team followed the league’s protocols, but the virus still found a way to infiltrate.
“You just look at all the other sports, it’s rare to find a team it didn’t affect,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s not really about was it going to happen but how you deal with it.That’s really what we’re going to find out, how we handle this coming out. Are we going to be in tip-top shape? Probably not. We’re going to have to figure different ways to make up for the time we lost. It really comes down to doing it right as best you can.”
The Canes played the Predators on Monday before all of these postponements, and several players on the COVID-19 protocol list played. Is that a problem?
The good news is, the Predators did not report any new players to their COVID-19 protocol list. The situation, however, points to a loophole in the NHL’s testing procedures. While players are being tested daily, the results aren’t available for about 24 hours. The Hurricanes are the perfect case study here. Players were tested Monday morning ahead of the Predators game in Nashville, played the game, then the team found out on Tuesday that there were some positive tests in the batch.
The solution could be to do what the NBA is doing: find a local provider in each market that can provide polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Those tests are collected the morning of a game, and the NBA sees the results at least one hour before tipoff. According to league sources, the NHL is not considering following this path just yet. But we’ll see if they have to change tune if postponements and positive tests pile up.
As for the decision to postpone a game? An NHLPA source told ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski this week that these calls are not tied to the quality of player that’s unavailable, but rather on the direction of medical experts regarding overall risk to teams.
What happened with the Capitals?
The situation in Washington comes down to the NHL’s protocols, which are strict, and much more restrictive than the ones with which the NBA began its season. It’s important to note that these rules were jointly negotiated and agreed to by both the NHL and the NHLPA.
The NHL knew it couldn’t ask players to be in a bubble for the entire season, because as commissioner Gary Bettman said, it’s just not sustainable. While the cost for bubbles was significant, the sacrifices demanded from players, team and league staffers was the main prohibitive factor. Those in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles were largely separated from their families during their stay, and several players voiced concerns to ESPN about the effects on mental health, after being cooped up and only allowed to travel from the hotel to the rink and back again.
“I don’t think a lot of fans realize what an emotional toll the bubble took on some guys — the isolation, the grind, being away from our families and loved ones during a really stressful time to begin with,” one player told ESPN in September. “To be honest, after the first few days, I noticed a lot of guys were more down than they usually are. Some guys were legitimately sad. It’s not easy living like that for two months.”
With that, the NHL agreed to allow players to live at home during the season, but did limit some of their freedoms. When at home, players are discouraged from socializing with any teammates outside of the rink environment. Even team meetings and video sessions are encouraged to be conducted virtually, whenever possible. On the road, players must stay in their own hotel rooms (no road roommates) and all are banned from dining at restaurants, going into shops or using transportation that is not directly provided by the team.
The NHL warned teams before the season that violations of these protocols “will result in significant club and individual sanctions, including potential forfeiture of games, fines and reimbursements of expenses, loss of draft choices, and/or ineligibility for participation in training activities.”
And that’s exactly what happened with Washington. One player tested positive, which forced the NHL to conduct contact tracing, according to coach Peter Laviolette. It was then determined that the Capitals had “social interactions among team members who were in close contact and who were not wearing face coverings.” Four players — forwards Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, goaltender Ilya Samsonov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov — have been placed on the COVID-19 protocol list, and the team was fined $100,000. Laviolette said he expects those players to miss the next four games, and the league will reevaluate after that.
How did the Capitals respond to their punishment?
First, a quote from a veteran player who has been active in NHLPA discussions this summer: “I think it’s pretty clear the league wants to use the Caps as an example. It’s them saying everyone should be on notice.”
The Capitals released a statement saying they were “disappointed by our players’ choice to interact in their hotel room and outside of team approved areas.” The team accepted the penalties and vowed to make sure players were in full compliance moving forward.
“We want to be compliant, and we made a mistake, and we need to do a better job,” Laviolette said Thursday. “Honestly, even I made a mistake. I dropped my mask. It was out there at the end of [a recent game] in the celebration. I’ve got to do a better job, too. It’s a learning lesson for everybody, because it is real stuff that we’re talking about. We don’t take it lightly. We’re trying to be 100% compliant, and yet, when you make a mistake, it can be costly.”
Ovechkin, the team captain, released a statement as well, saying: “I regret my choice to spend time together with my teammates in our hotel room and away from the locker room areas. I will learn from this experience.”
However Ovechkin’s wife, Nastya, had some stronger words. Posting to her Instagram story on Thursday, she wrote sarcastically:
Alex Ovechkin’s wife, Nastya, posted this on Instagram just now. She says Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov have covid-19 antibodies. pic.twitter.com/ZzxaisAFvW
— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) January 21, 2021
How do players around the league feel about how the season is going?
The restrictions definitely make the season feel different (as does the divisional-only play, reduced travel, and the fact the season began in January). “To be honest,” one player told ESPN this week. “It’s a lot. I kind of feel like I’m living in a bubble at home.”
Most players I’ve spoken to over the past several weeks accept the sacrifices they need to make; these are sacrifices the league feels are necessary to complete the season, which in turn recoups some of the “billions” of dollars Bettman says the league and its clubs are losing through the pandemic. While conditions are not ideal, the players are mostly exerting professionalism around the situation.
“Everyone’s put so much effort into this and [getting] back into game shape,” Predators defenseman Mark Borowiecki said on a Zoom call this week with reporters. “To go out and be irresponsible in any capacity and potentially affect someone else’s season who’s doing all the right things, to me, that’s just not being a good teammate or being a good person, plain and simple. It’s up to all of us in here to take ownership of yourself and your own daily habits and how you go about your business. Hopefully, we can all put an end to this quicker.”