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NHL’s COVID protocols need to live upto omicron environments
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NHL’s COVID protocols need to live upto omicron environments

Larry Brooks

They are all trying to do right here, the NHLPA & NHLPA, trying not stop the business from continuing and not stopping the league from responding to the omicron virus that is currently sweeping through Canada and the U.S.

With the number of cases mounting and teams being decimated due to multiple positives, it seems impossible to maintain even a semblance of competitive integrity. It is unfair that the league insists that teams use skeleton rosters. It is unfair for teams and it’s not fair for paying customers, who may see their team play with an NHL-AHL hybrid lineup that would be appropriate for an exhibition game.

To get an educated lay of the ground, the NHL will probably have to careen into its Dec. 24-25-26 holiday recess just a few days before it is due to resume.

Don’t look at me, and don’t even try to infer political partisanship from me. I am boosted, I wear masks when required or requested to do so, I support mandates, and yes, I am a member a vulnerable class. However, if players were not tested regularly, as many as 90% of players wouldn’t know they had contracted this virus. They are not symptomatic and pose no threat to their vaccinated teammates.

The larger population is obviously the most important. However, the league or PA can establish protocols to limit outside interaction to protect the players and those they come into contact with. The players are considered adults. They can take all necessary precautions to protect the health and well-being 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 NHLPA and NHLPA adopted improved 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 company. It is not a governing or health board. However, it seems that the first step in protecting the league employees (including the players) would be to make sure that all league employees are fully vaccinated as per the league’s prior terms. This would include getting a booster. The booster would not be paid to those who do not choose to go. This provision is not included in the new regulations that were implemented on Saturday.

If the holiday recess on either side is extended for a few days, it is imperative the league and PA, together with the medical specialists with whom both parties had been consulting throughout the pandemic use the time to develop additional protocols to combat this variant. Should an asymptomatic asymptomatic patient who tested positive be subject to the same restrictions that asymptomatic players who tested positive one year ago?

Even if health protocols were modified to accommodate this ever-changing set of circumstances and even if the break was extended through pick a day, Dec. 31, there are still likely to be multiple positive results when the schedule resumes. Only the names and organizations of the players and coaches would be different.

So what do you do? Then what? Should every team be the Islanders, Sabres, or Devils this year? Or should it have its season blown to pieces because too many players test positive despite following 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 from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics committee stand outside a ground that will be transformed into an ice rink at Wukesong Sports Centre.

The NHLPA and NHL NHL can amend their CBA to allow teams with multiple positives over the cap to bring reinforcements in. Only a Mickey Mouse league could insist that teams play a game with a lower than 20-man complement. It would probably not be much help for a team with a severely injured roster, but it would be something.

If NHL protocols are more strict than AHL guidelines, then taxi-squad needs to be reinstituted. Although I would recommend that NHL teams are allowed to dip into CHL for players in this special circumstance, it is unlikely to happen. There is an escrow limit, so the payroll would simply roll onto the PAs debt.

The league’s optimistic projection of $5 billion in HRR a few weeks back, and thus the possibility of the debt being paid off within two years to allow the cap to meaningfully increase in 2024-25, is almost certainly dead. Reduced capacity at precincts north and south of the border will not only cause problems, but it will also have a negative impact on the economy.  

It seems absurd to go to Beijing for the Olympics. Players who test positive at the Games may be subject to three to five weeks of quarantine in a Chinese facility. Is it worth the effort to win a medal? What happens if multiple players from the same country test positive? Out of the tournament

A player who is in quarantine for three to five weeks will not be able to skate. How much longer would that player have to be off the ice for the NHL season when he returns to North America after being quarantined? Is it worth it? Or is it selfish to insist on attending these Games? 

The NHLPA should gracefully bow out and do so now so that both the union and league have at least the three-week break to plan for attempting to reschedule games that have been postponed in buildings that may have only a few open dates. Could some teams be required to play home games on the roads? It could be.

The hard part is not extending the recess for a few days on each side. This is creating a plan to re-start the season in 2021-22 that will allow it to continue with integrity and protect the employees. If they need to start over, they must do so.

It’s a difficult job, but the NHLPA and NHL must do it.

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