Hockey

NHL NEWS: COVID Postponements Mount as NHL Faces Critical Phase of Season By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com

March 12, 2020, it is a date that has already gone down in history as one of the darkest days in professional sports.

In a span of just over 25-hours — dating back to the night of March 11, 2020, at 9:31pm(EST) — the world of professional sports came crashing to a halt due to the COVID-19 virus that was plaguing the world and spreading faster than The Flash could run from New York City to Tokyo, Japan. 

It all started with the NBA suspending the rest of its 2019-20 season “until further notice.” And it only ballooned from there. By the time people went to bed on the night of March 12th, the NHL, NBA G League, FIBA, La Liga, ATP, International Tennis Federation, MLS, Big Ten, AAC, SEC, U.S. Soccer, ACC, PAC-12, Big 12, Big East, NFL, MLB, MiLB, NCAA, Formula 1, XFL and PGA all either postponed or outright cancelled their upcoming events and seasons for the foreseeable future. 

Never before had this magnitude of cancellations occurred in sports. Not even a World War had forced that amount of cancellations before. So let that sink in.

But why am I rehashing what you already know? Well…

On Tuesday February 3, 2021, roughly 11-months after the initial COVID-19 shutdown, in a world where professional sports have long since returned to action — mostly sans fans — the NHL is once again facing the question of what to do to navigate the stormy waters this virus is causing. And it is forcing the League to implement new safety measures; not all of which the players are comfortable with. But we’ll get to those new policies in a minute.

After a successful Return to Play over the summer that saw the NHL go into first two bubbles and then down to one for its Stanley Cup Playoffs, the League determined it would realign — just for this season — its four divisions and play baseball-style mini-series to allow teams to have as little travel as possible and get in a 56-game regular season. 

The plan called for Opening Night to be played on Wednesday January 13th and for the regular season to conclude on May 8th before starting the Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 11th. The League also created a “Taxi Squad” of four to six extra players per team, who, in theory, would be able to immediately step in for any player who came down with the virus, or was exposed to it in some way; this way, games would not have to be cancelled or postponed.

That idea sounded nice in theory. But in a practical sense, it essentially never materialized.

Before the regular season even began the San Jose Sharks suffered an outbreak with 17 affected members of the organization that forced the postponement of their first handful of games. The Penguins, Blue Jackets and Canucks soon followed in regards to cancelling parts of their Training Camps due to COVID issues.

To its credit, the NHL developed a COVID Protocol List that was updated each day to inform the public and the media about any players who were ineligible to play that day due to either a positive COVID test, an inconclusive test, or were exposed in some other way.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Twitter was set ablaze with the names and sheer volume of players who were placed on the COVID List.

And it wasn’t just players who were making unfortunate COVID-related news.

On Tuesday January 26th, the Vegas Golden Knights were forced to have their General Manager go behind the bench to lead the team against the St. Louis Blues as Vegas’ ENTIRE coaching staff was placed in self-quarantine.

Their game on Thursday January 28th was subsequently postponed as Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo was placed on the COVID List.

The Carolina Hurricanes went 10-days without a game as their opponents were all affected by COVID. Do you think their players and coaches were happy about such a long layoff so early in the season?

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild had six players put on The COVID List within the last couple of days and find themselves postponed until likely Tuesday of next week.

And recently, the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders and New York Rangers all had their schedules impacted by COVID.

First came the Devils with four players being put on the COVID List. Then that number ballooned to 10, then 15 and now 17 as of the writing of this article. New Jersey won’t see the ice in a competitive game at least through Saturday February 6th.

The Sabres, who played the Devils last weekend, were irate their games were played even after the Devils had an initial one to two players placed on the COVID list. And now four Sabres players have been added to the list: Taylor Hall and Rasmus Ristolainen were added to The List on Tuesday, while Brandon Montour and Tobias Rieder were added Wednesday evening and have been postponed at least through Monday February 8th. And then today we found out that Head Coach Ralph Krueger has also tested positive. (We wish him a speedy recovery).

Continuing with our connecting the dots theme, the Sabres were supposed to play the Islanders Tuesday and Thursday of this week, but between the snowstorm that hit New York and their COVID issues, those games have also been postponed; leaving the Isles without a dance partner at least until this weekend.

The Rangers were supposed to play the Devils on Saturday February 6th, but that’s now off, so the team will get some more practice time; provided there’s no new COVID news for the Blueshirts after Kaapo Kakko was added to the COVID List the other day. (AUTHOR NOTE: Kakko practiced with the team Wednesday and appears to be on track for Thursday’s game against the Capitals)

So, with all of these postponements — 20+ as of Thursday afternoon — already needing attention and more sure to unfortunately follow, what can the NHL do to try and steady the ship?

Well, it’s time to get into those new policies I mentioned earlier.

1) The League has tasked its teams with removing all glass behind the benches to try and help the air circulation in the most densely packed part of the arena. And the League isn’t waiting around; mandating this task be done by the time the puck drops Thursday night. (That’s tonight by the way).

2) The NHL is likely to ask teams to install portable air cleaners behind the benches, “in order to improve indoor air quality and mitigate airborne viral transmission.”

3) Players and coaches may no longer arrive at the arena more than an hour-and-45-minutes before gametime. (Unless they are receiving treatment for an injury).

This is the one that has already received backlash from players, most notably by the Jets’ Player Rep, Andrew Copp, who made his feelings known to reporters shortly after the announcement. (See Tweet below).

4) Teams are also being asked to create additional locker room space in both the home and visiting rooms. The idea is to keep players six-feet apart while at their stalls.

Those are quite the asks being made by the League of its teams and players. Hopefully, these new policies work. 

As always, please stay safe and continue to enjoy the sports we have, while we have them.

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