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NHL COVID Cases on the Rise?

Last summer, the NHL proved to be the league best able to curb COVID cases. The Bubble was difficult for players and staff alike, but with 0 cases reported, it was damn effective.

That all seems like a lifetime ago when you look at this week’s schedule. There are 5 teams currently postponing games due to COVID cases, and many more face a handful that have not yet crippled them. Late Thursday night the Colorado Avalanche announced that they would be the fifth team to postpone games in the NHL. They joined the ranks of the Golden Knights, the Devils, the Wild, and the Sabres.

So what happened? Is it just the players and staff being reckless, or is it the COVID restrictions putting a stop to games?

NHL COVID Protocol

There’s a 54-page document that was released in December outlining how the NHL expects everyone to conduct themselves. It outlines how early they can arrive at the arena on game days, how to eat together, and where to park. It lays out how to react when someone presents COVID symptoms or tests positive. All of this, in very great detail.

They amended this document on Thursday to be a little more lenient in certain areas. Rather than demand no one arrive an hour and 45 minutes before puck drop, it’s just a recommendation. They also submitted changes to the arenas themselves to aid the dissipation of air (potentially containing the virus).

The Bubble was very cut and dry: no contact with anyone outside the Bubble. The 54 pages of protocol paint shades of grey. Is that the area that’s made dozens of games get shuffled? It’s hard to say and will be even more difficult with the new systems in place.

But it could certainly contribute to the problem. Everyone remembers being a kid when an adult would tell you that you were not allowed to do something, that only made you want to do it more. The defiance from youth never fully leaves anyone, and often comes out more when you feel like a rule isn’t logical. Maybe that is the lens we need to use when looking at a situation like what happened with the Russians on the Capitals. When you’re allowed to be maskless on the bench with your teammates, but not interact with them maskless away from the ice, that will definitely frustrate you. 

Human Error?

Because of how the NHL handles COVID protocol cases, we know precious few details about who and how. We know who tests positive and can figure out who’s out if the whole team isn’t shut down, but that’s not always the case. So we can’t fully know how these players and staff are being protocol-ed.

Now, I’m not going to give all of these guys a free pass. I work with the public every day, and I see how careless people can be when they’re not really thinking. It may not be intentional, but there are definitely players who forget to wear a mask when picking up food or aren’t washing their hands enough, at least. At worst, there are players socializing with people outside the NHL without masks and without negative tests. They definitely won’t be the majority, I have some faith in humanity left, but there are some out there.

Will It End?

With the vaccine coming out, hopefully, we’ll see fewer games postponed. But that’s still months away and there’s no definitive end in sight. So what can the NHL do to cut down on COVID protocols? I’m not sure there’s an answer other than to reinstate the Bubble. Nobody involved in the league wants that again. It seems to me that the issue with the NHL is a microcosm of the world at large. People aren’t going to be 100% responsible 100% of the time. You can’t police every human being individually, it just isn’t feasible. The world has had a year to figure this out, and we haven’t done it yet. It’s not entirely fair to expect the NHL to have.

Now, that said, I think there’s room for improvement both with protocols and with personal involvement. Even the most responsible players and staff members aren’t perfect. There are things they could do better. But there are also policies that can be redesigned to be both more doable for the people involved and more active, like the ones they just added.

In the end, we still have hockey. I just hope this is the worst of the postponements we’ll seem so we can continue to have hockey.

-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)

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Heidi Thomas

Armchair hockey coach, passive horse racing fan, full-time dog referee.

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