The 2021 NHL season, shortened by 56 games, is only a month old and the league has already revised its COVID-19 protocols several times. About 100 players were on the COWID’s absentee list, 35 games were postponed and half a dozen teams were suspended as a result of the outbreak.
Here’s everything you need to know about how the coronavirus is affecting the hockey season, what the new protocols hope to accomplish and what the next steps are.
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Based on preseason projections, what is the status of the NHL with respect to the number of adjournments and the number of players on the COVID-19 roster to date?
Vyshinsky: After deciding not to start the regular season with bubbles or turnstiles, NHL officials realized that players would likely view COVID-19 sympathetically and games would be postponed as a result.
Of course I didn’t expect us to have a perfect record from the bubble [last summer]. We’ve introduced a lot more risk and there’s certainly a lot more interaction, NHL Assistant Commissioner Bill Daley told ESPN Monday. Honestly, we have a lot of players, right? We have many more than the NBA – about 725 players on the active roster plus taxi players plus AHL players. There are just a lot of players.
They knew they would not succeed with the COWID-19 protocols they had in the bubble. But did they think that one month into the season, 35 games would be postponed, several teams would be eliminated simultaneously, and the list of COVID affiliated passes would include 27 of the league’s 31 franchises?
No one thought it would be this bad, an NHL source said.
However, Mr. Daley said he was not surprised by the first month’s figures. I would like to see less business and less defection to the clubs…. The answer is yes. I can say that this came as a surprise to me, but I’m not sure it was necessary.
Last week, the NHL changed and adjusted its COVID-19 protocols to account for several clubs – Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers – rescheduling multiple games in the same window. But the reaction was not reactionary, as multiple sources have told us that there is no internal panic in the NHL to end the season after a difficult first month.
Is there enough time to catch up?
Vyshinsky: With a number of postponed games and many teams having to drop out due to COWID-19 outbreaks, there is speculation about the ultimate fate of the season.
This point has already been made. Will we still be able to play all the games? Can we really finish this? said one veteran player. I think enough money has been spent and they have faced enough adversity to find a way to stop it. But this is getting crazy.
Under rules agreed upon by the NHL and the NHLPA prior to the 2020-21 season, the last day of the regular season is the eighth day. May and the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 11th consecutive year. The month of May is planned. But the NHL has talked about moving that date to a later date if they need to catch up at the end of the season.
The NHL has rescheduled 35 games to Monday. Of these postponements, 17 matches have not yet been re-scheduled. But Daly said the NHL is still comfortable with the reprogramming aspect.
We postponed 35 games and had to reschedule them. We managed quite easily. I hope the number of delays and postponements will decrease over time, but we haven’t even used up the buffer time we planned for at the end of the schedule, he said.
One thing in the NHL’s favor is the fact that there is still a lot of data on arenas. The slow introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine, combined with U.S. regulations, has delayed plans to bring concerts and other events back to the arena this spring and summer. For example, Madison Square Garden has up to 13. July: no non-sporting event on the calendar while Justin Bieber’s Manhattan World Tour is on the agenda.
Clearly, the course gets shorter with each postponement, especially for teams that have postponed several games due to COVID-19 protocols. For the Devils, for example, there is no more postponement because there are 8 of them. May could play 47 games in 81 days.
They think they can get everything, but at some point it becomes mathematically impossible if teams don’t play every night, an NHL source said of the postponed games.
Daly is confident the NHL can play all 56 games. Obviously, situations can change. I’m not guaranteeing we’ll make it anyway. But I’m encouraged by the mini-rehearsal we’ve had since the wave of new protocols was introduced. Let’s see where we’re going, Daley said. I wouldn’t say that everything that has happened so far calls into question our ability to do that.
The start of the playoffs is flexible. The same goes for the end of the playoffs. The NHL was expected to begin its postseason before the 23rd round. July, when the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled.
We always said we wanted to be ready by mid-July. Let it be the 10th. July or the 20th. July, I can’t say. As long as I’m here, we have some flexibility. But that’s the area we’re focusing on, Daley said.
The deputy commissioner confirmed the return to the regular schedule for the 2021-22 season – the first under a new contract with American Television and featuring Seattle Cracks as the 32nd franchise. The NHL franchise – is more important than the Olympics in terms of limiting the summer.
A number of postponed games will be made up later in the season, but the NHL has some leeway to make the Stanley Cup playoffs start a little later if necessary. Jamie Sabau/NHL via Getty Images
How has the NHL changed its protocols since the start of the season?
Chaplain: For starters, the NHL began the season with much stricter protocols than its winter sports counterpart, the NBA, including restrictions on player travel abroad. Basically, no movement outside of the rink or hotel and no socializing in hotels except in team zones – and certainly not without masks.
(The Washington Capitals, fined $100,000 in January for housing several players in hotel rooms without masks, found this out the hard way.)
Two weeks ago, after an accumulation of cases and reports, the NHL and the NHLPA took even stricter action. They asked the teams to remove the windows behind the benches (to improve air circulation) and to rearrange the locker rooms so that they are more socially distant from each other. The league also told the players to arrive at the rink on game days no earlier than one hour and 45 minutes before the face-off, which was then downplayed because the players had to do push-ups.
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On Friday, the NHL and APLN unveiled a new set of protocols that will be in effect at least until the 28th. February applies. The biggest change is the introduction of quick tests on race day. Teams were also instructed to hand out KN95 masks to players whenever possible and to remove glass from the penalty areas (again, to improve air circulation).
The latest decree also imposes a home quarantine, urging players’ family members to limit their activities as much as possible. Players should stay home unless they are attending practices and games, training outside, performing important activities (e.g., doctor’s appointments), caring for family, or have other emergencies. Teams were also asked to rearrange their locker rooms, this time by creating a seating arrangement whereby players who were believed to be immune could sit together and act as a buffer for those who had not yet contracted the virus.
There is no magic bullet that makes everything safe, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital who advised the NHLPA. All together in these logs, you get progressive security and protection, and that’s all you’re looking for.
The NHL and the LLPOA continue to communicate with each other on a daily basis, and sources on both sides have stressed that they are prepared to adjust protocols as often as necessary to reflect the changing climate and end the season in its current form. At least that is the current priority.
Does the NHL really use players who have received COVID-19 to protect players who have not yet received it?
Vyshinsky: Under a new protocol, teams must place already infected players or staff members as a buffer between those who have not tested positive. This seating arrangement applies to locker rooms, team dining rooms, and travel abroad. For example, the NHL says: A player who tested positive less than 90 days ago must sit next to a player who never had COVID-19 or who recovered from COVID-19 more than 90 days ago.
According to Daly, the idea came from the experiences of other team sports during the pandemic, according to the league’s infectious disease experts. Apparently, this has caught the attention not only of our infectious disease specialists, but also of the actors’ association. According to them, this is an effective way to limit the damage. He said we are looking at all the tools for damage control.
Despite the slight suspicion of dystopia in using (former) patients to protect healthy people, the science behind buffering makes it an effective part of the League’s strategy.
A person infected with the virus is somewhat immune for some time. Of course, people can be re-infected. But the chance of reinfection within three months is very small. By protecting players who are not infected from players who are infected in the locker room, you are essentially creating a better physical distance between the players. I like her. That’s great, Bogoch said.
Physical distance is important. It’s not the only way to keep VIDOC at bay, but if you combine this approach with covering and ventilation, you reduce the risk of transmission indoors, he said.
Given the proximity of players on the bench, in the locker room and elsewhere, it makes sense to use immunized players as buffers. Graham Hughes/Canadian Press via AP
Where are the players in COVID-19 after almost a year?
Chaplain: The players I have spoken with are generally willing to abide by the strict rules this season and understand the sacrifices that must be made to turn a season around. You know what’s at stake.
I’d say about 75 percent [of the players] on each team take it seriously, an NHL veteran said. Put on masks, stay home and do something to get things back to normal.
Some players, however, have spoken quietly about what they consider to be league actions or double standards.
Says a seasoned player: It’s funny that we can skate on each other on the ice, sit next to each other on the couch, do all those things close enough to each other, and then the league has to monitor all those other interactions. Of course I understand that, but I don’t know to what extent some of these measures minimize our risk. There were a lot of guys on the COVID list, which is inevitable if we want to play now, especially here [in the U.S.], but some of the rules are like Band-Aids.
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Asking family members to limit their communication is understandable, an NHL veteran said, but nearly impossible to fully implement, especially for players with young children who are back to school or involved in extracurricular activities.
Players say they feel more isolated this season, especially when traveling. Added to that is the fear and shame associated with being on the COVID protocol list, whether they test positive or not.
It’s guilt, which is weird because you’re not supposed to feel guilty, Wildcat attacker Marcus Foligno told The Athletic this week. But you do, and if you’re the first, everyone will see your name appear first, creating a domino effect throughout the team.
What about behavioural responses to the virus? Several players have experienced many chess games with COWID-19. Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov, who tested positive in January, told reporters he had breathing problems.
I don’t think COWID is something to be taken lightly, said one actor. We do not know the long-term effects on heart and lung health. We don’t know that.
Another actor showed a different point of view: I think for many people the phrase seems as common as the flu. Some people get the flu, become bedridden and can die. Others get it and get sick for a few days, but continue to function. When you play in the NHL, you’re in good shape. They play through [illnesses]. So some people don’t understand why they need to wear a mask or be isolated when they see something that looks like regular flu.
What was the reaction to Buffalo vs. New Jersey series, which many cite as an example of transfers between teams?
Vyshinsky: The weekend of the 30-31. Two games between the Sabres and Devils took place in Buffalo in January. After the weekend, 24 players on both teams followed the COVID absenteeism protocol, as did two referees on the ice; Sabres coach Ralph Krueger had moderately severe symptoms after the infection, and the teams postponed six games each.
Much of the focus this weekend has been on how the outbreak could have happened. A source told us the Sabres are upset that the game is on the 31st. January was never played, given the growing number of players on the 19 minutes of COVID des Diables. But emphasis was also placed on where the epidemic could have occurred – many cited these games as rare examples of transmission on the ice and during competitions.
It might have been in the New Jersey locker room, and now here we are, Sabres general manager Kevin Adams said last week. Of course, it is possible to connect the dots. But this should not happen on the ice. We should let the doctors be the experts.
Daly said the incident is of concern to the league and its experts.
I think we have a few anecdotal cases that could indicate that this is the case, and obviously that worries us, Daley said. Therefore, we are testing genomic sequences to see if we can better solve this problem. Were there team changes during the game, were there special circumstances, including the fact that the workload might be different than what we have typically experienced in the past; you know there is anecdotal evidence that this might be the case.
Bogoch said infection in the game remains a possibility. There are many things that make up an exhibit. You may have very brief contact with a person in a high-risk environment, leading to transmission. So, of course, it’s possible, he said.
In response, the NHL has provided better ventilation around the bench and penalty kicks and tightened protocols on the ice.
Players in the league have talked about the Sabres and Devils’ resurgence, but an NHL veteran told ESPN that the possible transfer incident during the game was not seen as a game changer.
We talked about it in the sense that in both teams someone had it and it came out. But I don’t think the guys are afraid right now that they’re going to make it on the ice. This is just a bad example, he said.
Athletic reported that two linesmen who worked at both games in the series were part of the COVID-19 protocol. Mr. Daley stated that he has not heard any further concerns from officials about radio broadcasts.
I don’t think the officials are separate from all the other communities involved in the game. COVID is a reality. And, you know, they’re doing their job and everybody’s doing their best. The fact that this can happen is accepted by those involved, he said.
Some believe there may have been a transfer from COVID-19 during the series between the Sabres and Demons in late January. John Crouch/Icon Sports Wire via Getty Images
Is the NHL considering a return to the bubble?
Kaplan, Wyshinsky: The subject of the bubble’s return has not been seriously discussed in the NHL or the NHLPA since the beginning of the season. This is partly due to cost and logistics. But perhaps the same driving force is the reluctance of the actors to return.
While the post-2020 season was generally considered a success – the main goal was to win the Stanley Cup and avoid contracting the virus, both of which succeeded – the players generally did not have the most pleasant experience of being isolated for so long, mostly without family. The players signed it, knowing it would be a temporary (and hopefully unique) request. Lightning star Victor Hedman spent 65 days in the bubbles of Toronto and Edmonton before his team returned home with a Stanley Cup victory. With that experience behind him and a four-month-old son, Hedman says he doesn’t really like the idea of another postseason bubble.
We’ll see when we do. It’s hard. It was difficult. Now that I also have a baby, it’s even harder to think about going 65 days without him. We’ll see when we do. We hope [COVID-19] can take it easy in the league and we can play. I hope these new rules will be helpful. But it’s not my first choice, I can tell you what he said.
The other NHL veteran was a bit more direct: Yeah, I don’t think so. But I don’t see people jumping on it.
The NHL and players in general agree that things have to get much worse for the bubble concept to be considered. But finishing the regular season on a hybrid bubble would not have been impossible, if not necessary, given the rebuilding season and intra-divisional play.
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One of the concepts of the season’s setup was to have four centers for each of the four divisions, each as a hybrid bubble with high protocols, but with the ability for teams to move in and out of the center during breaks. In the end, the teams chose to play in their own arena.
According to Mr. Daley, the concept has not yet emerged from the shadows.
Everything is constantly monitored. We looked at the mini-bubble formations before the start of the regular season. I would say they are still active in terms of contingency planning. We want to make sure we have the next plan when we need it, he said. I am sure that everyone in the House is working on these plans. When the time comes to really use a contingency plan, I’m sure it will work.
But even then, there was no significant discussion of moving the regular season or playoffs to the bubble. According to an NHL source, that’s not the case yet, and even if it were, players wouldn’t be interested.
Tricky questions: More and more teams are selling tickets to the games again. That’s a total of nine franchises after New York State announced that the Rangers, Islanders and Sabres will be allowed to hold up to 10% of the power.
According to Daly, teams whose fans return to the gym don’t stress much about it.
I think all our owners and clubs are aware that we need to be agile and flexible and be able to change suppliers quickly if we need to. If it is eventually decided that we need to change set-up before the end of the season, our clubs need to be prepared for that and understand that it could lead to a loss of fan activity and ticket sales revenue.
Is the playoff ranking determined by a percentage of points?
Vyshinsky: After the 2019-20 season begins on the 12th. March was interrupted due to the pandemic, the NHL made two decisions regarding its postseason : Twenty-four teams will participate in this summer’s revival in the bubbles of Toronto and Edmonton, and the ranking of those teams will be based on percentage – the percentage of possible points a team has scored in the games in which it has participated – rather than total gross points.
For example: The Winnipeg Jets finished the season with 80 points in 71 games. According to preliminary data, they were the sixth best team in the Western Conference. But they were ninth in the West for placement (.563), with Nashville (.565), Vancouver (.565) and Calgary (.564) all ahead of them. The Jets were destroyed by the Flames in the first round.
While the goal is still to move all games – and Daly thinks every team can play 56 games – there are some contingency plans for the rankings that are being discussed internally, including whether teams will be ranked on a percentage basis if they end up playing different totals.
Such a discussion: Are some areas sown differently than others? A look at the table shows that the northern division is doing much better than the three American divisions in terms of change. If there is an NHL division where teams have played fewer than 56 games, could the NHL rank that division on a percentage basis if the other divisions are ranked roughly?
I mean, I think both are possible. It will depend on the circumstances when we have to decide what the best solution is, Daley said. I know people want a full answer to the question of what your plan is when X happens; well, tell me what X is and when it happens and also tell me what our plan is. I think we need to have that flexibility to make those decisions.
This could lead to more problems than it solves, from teams complaining that their season was interrupted during the playoff bubble to complaints about inconsistencies in scheduling (for example, one Central Division team played a bunch of games against Detroit and another didn’t).
Regardless of the standings, one of the NHL veterans we spoke with said that most players understand that it’s impossible to predict how the standings will be determined in the playoffs, and so they should make every game count.
I think in a season of 56 games, every team has had the importance that the coaching staff has placed on it, that every game has counted. He said you shouldn’t have it in your head every time you walk onto the ice that we can’t play with 56 full.
So far, the 2021 season hasn’t produced many goals for the Red Wings. Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images
Where is the NHL with the quick test?
Chaplain: At the beginning of the season, all players and coaches were subjected to daily PCR testing. Although PCR tests are quite accurate, it takes 12 to 24 hours for results to be known, and many NHL sufferers are concerned about this delay. It seemed plausible that infected players had played games without knowing they were infected until the next morning. There have even been cases of players being withdrawn mid-game when their test turned out to be positive.
For example, a few weeks into the season, the NHL began using faster tests that produce results in less than 30 minutes. That’s when the league realized it was a necessity (a change the NBA also made during the season) and spent the last few days searching all the American markets to get all the players and coaches into the arena on game days. The NHL is still working on the availability of its seven Canadian teams.
If they think it helps, I’m all for it, said Tampa Bay defender Victor Hedman. It’s a little different with meetings and such, but you can’t complain. We have to do what we love to do, which is play hockey.
The Vegas Golden Knights stone mark has been added: We would know more before the games, and that is what we want after all.
Introducing advanced express testing into the league would only help, but it would be costly.
I’m not going to give you an estimate, Mr. Daley said. But what I can say, and what your readers should know, is that cost wasn’t really an issue. The fact is that it was decided to proceed with a rapid test as soon as possible, regardless of the cost. Here we return to our original priorities, the health and safety of our stakeholders and what we can do to improve them.
What is the status of the League’s finances?
Chaplain: Before the season, Commissioner Gary Bettman gave us a rather bleak financial overview. It would have been cheaper for us to close our doors and not play, Bettman told reporters in December. We will lose more money, both at club and league level, if we play and if we don’t. As for the losses, Bettman said The magnitude of the loss starts at B. We are out of the M range and we are going to the B range.
The NHL has found ways to generate some revenue, including placing ads on helmets for the first time, but many are considered commodities for existing sponsors. Some additional protocols resulted in additional costs.
One of the problems with removing the glass behind the benches and the penalty area is that operationally it could lead to an explosion, Daly said. Because it was a big promotion, one of the ones we did at the beginning of the season. So this is all a push.
Most employees in the NHL office are still working at reduced salaries, Daly confirmed. This has been the case for most of the pandemic, and the deputy commissioner does not know when it will end.
I don’t have a timeline to tell you when that’s going to change, Daley said. Clearly, this is a subject that we deal with on a regular basis. It’s a tough question, given the amount of revenue coming in – or not coming in – and the league totals. What I can say is that I think our ownership has been a big help to the league office. And in the league office, we had no consents, no layoffs, none of that. Of course everyone would love to work full time, but I also think they understand how the world works and why we can’t be here this month.