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It’s Time to Pause the NHL Season

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With NHL teams showing they cannot play games in a safe manner, it is time for the NHL to hold off on games for a while.

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Maybe we should’ve known that the NHL season shouldn’t have started when the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes couldn’t make it through training camp without a COVID outbreak. Maybe it was when the Washington Capitals were fined $100,000 for failing to meet COVID protocols (that they understood). Maybe it was when both the NHL and the New Jersey Devils refused to provide the Buffalo Sabres with information about the Devils COVID outbreak.

Regardless, it is indisputable: the NHL cannot play these games safely. With players and NHL personnel’s health in jeopardy, it is time for the NHL to acknowledge reality and pause the upcoming season.

This week has shown the NHL cannot manage COVID risks safely.

Just this week, we have seen COVID outbreaks spike in the NHL. Four teams have shut down their practice facilities due to multiple players and coaches testing positive, and the NHL has already announced schedule changes for 27 games. Contrast that with the NBA, where no players tested positive all week.

Also this week, we learned more about the fiasco of the Buffalo Sabres series last weekend with the New Jersey Devils. In short, it appears that both the NHL and the Devils concealed details of a COVID outbreak. Even worse, despite the Sabres concerns, the NHL continued with the scheduled games. As a result, the Sabres now have seven players on the NHL’s COVID protocol list and 61-year old Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger tested positive for COVID.

Although we sometimes minimize the damage to athletes from contracting COVID, it can result in devastating health results. To illustrate, look at Minnesota Wild prospect Marco Rossi. Recently, the Wild announced that Rossi had been sent back to Austria due to lingering impacts from a COVID infection. The Athletic’s Michael Russo had more frightening details:

What Payer heard on the other line was a shaky voice and devastated client.

“Picture this, he’s flying in from the world juniors. He’s thrilled. He’s expecting to step onto the ice in a few days following his quarantine and he’s suddenly being told, ‘You failed your medical,’” Payer said Monday in a phone interview with The Athletic. “He was just totally shocked and obviously worried.”

Payer’s next call was from Rossi’s father, Michael, who was helplessly in Austria and frantic about his 19-year-old son’s health and what was going on across an entire ocean in the middle of North America. That triggered a series of calls with Wild general manager Bill Guerin, a team of medical professionals and weeks of trying to diagnose Rossi’s precise medical condition and how to treat what was determined to be complications from having COVID-19.

Even worse, we are learning that players may transfer COVID to each other during games. Reporting by The Washington Post last December has already indicated that ice rinks may be uniquely ideal breeding grounds for COVID. Further, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has called on the NHL to see if there was transmission of COVID between the Devils and Sabres from the last set of games.

The NHL’s response to the COVID outbreak haven’t been enough and sends the wrong societal message.

Yet what was the NHL’s response to this outbreak? So far, it has been to 1. Remove glass from behind the benches 2. Give more space in dressing rooms and 3. Bar teams from the arena until an hour and 45 minutes before the game (with plenty of exceptions).

This is all well and good, but it has several obvious holes. The NHL has provided no guidance on goal celebrations (unlike in soccer), players still are huddled near each other on the bench, and there’s no indication that the NHL is enforcing their mask mandate on coaches. Though the Caps were deservedly fined for violating COVID protocols, it’s hard to explain why their violation was more of a COVID risk than huddling together after scoring a goal then returning to a crowded bench with a bunch of other mask-less players.

Even more egregious: with the NHL experiencing an uncontrolled COVID outbreak, some teams are letting fans back into buildings! With COVID deaths near still-record highs around the country, 3 NHL teams are letting fans sit in enclosed areas, despite the evidence that such mass gatherings have made the COVID outbreak worse. The message of continuing a sports season during an uncontrolled COVID outbreak is bad enough, allowing fans into the building compounds the comedy of errors.

With COVID vaccine distribution picking up, exposing players and NHL personnel to an uncontrolled COVID outbreak is both dangerous and unnecessary.

The uncontrolled nature of the NHL COVID outbreak is reason enough to pause the season, but the increasingly ramped-up distribution of the vaccine provides a further reason for delay. To understand why, look at the drastic increase in vaccine distribution in the last 2 weeks alone:

Daily vaccines administered in the United States
Our World in Data

Already, the United States is vaccinating 1.35 million people a day, and there’s indications that the number is going to rise substantially over the next few weeks. As a result, the U.S. is projected to have over a third of the total population vaccinated by May, and widespread vaccine distribution is expected by then too.

This begs the question: if NHL players will be able to get the vaccine in April or May, why are we risking them to a COVID outbreak now? Even worse, why are we exposing team personnel (who make less money and are older) to this outbreak too?

Ultimately, as former Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said last July:

Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say. We did flatten the curve a little bit, but we didn’t use that time to do anything productive. We just opened back up for Memorial Day. We decided we’re done with it.

If sports are the reward of a functioning society, the NHL has flunked. It’s time to pause the season.