NHL’s COVID protocols should live up to omicron environment

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They are all trying to do the right thing here, the NHL and NHLPA, trying not to shut down the business and not to shut down the league in response to the omicron variant that is sweeping through much of the U.S. and Canada.

But with cases piling up and teams being decimated by multiple positives, maintaining even a veneer of competitive integrity seems to be becoming impossible. It is simply not fair for the league to insist that teams play with skeleton rosters. It is not fair to teams and it is not fair to the paying customers who on any given night might watch their team play with a hybrid NHL-AHL lineup befitting of an exhibition match.

And that is why the NHL is probably going to have to careen into the scheduled Dec. 24-25-26 holiday recess a handful of days early and extend it for a few days on the other side as well in order to get some sort of educated lay of the land.

Don’t roll your eyes at me and do not even attempt to infer any political partisanship on my behalf. I am boosted, I wear a mask where required or asked to do so, I support mandates and yes, of course, I am a member of a vulnerable class, but if players weren’t tested so regularly, up to 90 percent of them wouldn’t even know they had contracted the virus. They are asymptomatic and pose little threat to their vaccinated teammates.

There is, of course, the larger population, but the league and PA can enact protocols to limit outside interaction in order to protect not only the players, but those with whom they come in contact. The players are adults. They can take whatever measures they feel necessary to protect the health of their families.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 National Hockey League Draft at the NHL Network Studio on October 06, 2020 in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Gary Bettman
Getty Images

Indeed, the NHL and NHLPA adopted enhanced protocols on Saturday. The problem is that they are largely last season’s more stringent guidelines. The league needs to create regulations that address the current environment, not last year’s.

The NHL is a business. It is not a health board or a governing body. But it seems that a first step in protecting league employees (including players) would be to redefine “fully vaccinated” under the prior terms agreed to by the league and PA to include getting a booster. Those who choose to go without getting the booster would thus not be paid for games they miss because of COVID protocol. This stipulation is not among the new regulations implemented on Saturday.

If the holiday recess is extended by a few days on either side, it is imperative that the league and PA, in concert with the medical experts with whom both parties have been consulting throughout the pandemic, use the time to create additional new protocols to deal with this variant and with this virus. Should an asymptomatic player who tested positive be under the same restrictions an asymptomatic player who tested positive was a year ago?

But even if health protocols are amended to deal with this ever-shifting set of circumstances, and even if the break is extended through — pick a date, Dec. 31 — there is still likely to be multiple positive test results when the schedule resumes. Only the names of the players and of their organizations would be different.

So then what? Force those teams to play while a half-dozen or more of the varsity are on COVID, minor-leaguers take their place and seasons are blown to bits? Should every team become the Islanders of this year and maybe the Flyers or Sabres or Devils of last year and have its season blown to bits because too many players test positive even while adhering to health guidelines?

Reporters and staff members from the committee of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, stand outside a ground which will be turned into an ice rink at the Wukesong Sports Centre, a venue for ice hockey competitions during the Games, during an organized media tour, China, Dec. 9, 2021.
Reporters and staff members from the committee of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, stand outside a ground which will be turned into an ice rink at the Wukesong Sports Centre.
REUTERS

Surely the NHL and NHLPA can amend the CBA to permit teams with multiple positives to go over the cap in order to bring in reinforcements. Only a Mickey Mouse league would insist on teams playing a game with fewer than the 20-man complement. That probably would provide minimal help to a devastated roster, but at least it would be something.

If NHL protocols are more stringent than AHL guidelines, then the taxi-squad should be reinstituted. I would suggest that NHL teams be permitted under this unique circumstance to dip into the CHL for players, but that is not going to happen. There’s an escrow cap, anyway, so the additional payroll would just roll onto the PA’s debt.

By the way, the optimistic $5 billion projection of HRR from the league just a couple of weeks ago, and thus the prospect of the debt being paid off in another two years so that the cap can meaningfully increase in 2024-25 is all but certainly inoperative. Reduced capacity in precincts north of the border — only up there, for now — will take its toll.  

Going to the Olympics in Beijing seems preposterous. Players who test positive at the Games will be subject to three-to-five weeks of quarantine in some sort of facility in China. Is chasing a medal really worth it? What if multiple players for one country test positive? Out of the tournament?

If a player is quarantined for three-to-five weeks, he will do no skating. So how much longer would that player be sidelined for the NHL season upon his return to North America? Again, is it worth it? Or at some point does it become selfish to insist on going to these Games? 

The NHLPA should bow out gracefully and do it now so that the union and the league at least have the scheduled three-week break with which to work in attempting to reschedule postponed games in buildings that may not have more than a handful of open dates. Might some teams be obligated to play “home” games on the road? That just might be.

Look, extending the recess by a few days on either side isn’t the hard part. That is devising a plan for a re-start that will allow the 2021-22 season to continue with integrity on the ice while protecting the health of its employees. If they have to start from scratch, that’s what they have to do.

Tough job, but the NHL and NHLPA have to do it.

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