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COVID Conundrum

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The NHL’s Failure Relating to the Canucks

NHL: Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

On April 7, 2021, the Vancouver Canucks have 25 players and personnel who are under COVID-19 protocols. This large number of individuals in the Vancouver Canucks COVID bubble has remained fairly consistent over the last seven to ten days. It has risen from 8 to 20 and now 25. It certainly hasn’t dwindled like many hoped it would, allowing the Canucks to return to playing NHL games and saving the NHL from having to address their short-sightedness in their COVID protocols.

The NHL’s COVID Protocols have no provisions for a team which enters an extended period of COVID isolation and is not able to reschedule their games in a suitable period of time. In fact, other than speaking to the individual isolation of players and personnel suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, there is little information provided on how the NHL will handle an outbreak provided. (Yes, I’ve been through them.)

While this COVID outbreak may seem like an unpredictable outcome, it is not. Hockey has not, at an NHL level, been played wearing personal protective equipment nor has it suddenly become a game where physical distancing is consistently possible. The very fact the NHL has protocols in place for teams to reschedule games delayed due to COVID-19 is a tacit acknowledgement that the NHL expected there would be cases of COVID during the NHL season. However, for some reason the NHL seems to have the enviable and foolish belief that a significant and sustained COVID outbreak will not occur among the players, personnel, and other associated team management and administration.

Why a hockey team should seem to be exempt when no one else in the world has been is has not been explained. And with the situation facing Vancouver has proven to be certifiably false.

There may be some of you reading this which are quick to point out that the NHL’s formidable precautions and testing have contained the impact of the original COVID-19 strain to fairly short periods where a team is unable to play. (If you’re making that argument, honestly why are you reading this? I’m just going to make you angry…) And again I’m going to say that is complete nonsense.

There was a considerable amount of conversation around variations of COVID-19 which started as early as when the NHL Hub Cities hosted the 2020 playoffs. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, variants were an acknowledged concern by January 2021 when the NHL COVID protocols were drafted. Beyond any talk of the variants, the NHL protocols in place still reply on individual compliance.

They require players and team staff to stay in the hotel or at the practice rink, to only eat at approved restaurants, and to limit contact with each other outside of the arena. In general, on any given day there are probably several infractions by players, personnel, or team or NHL employees. I say this with confidence because the majority of the world has been unable to adhere to much less strenuous protocols like wearing their masks over their mouth and nose.

While I understand the potential impacts of COVID fatigue of decision-making. This is no excuse. The NHL (and indeed the NHLPA) is not composed of one person making decisions for themselves. It is composed of multiple highly paid individuals who are entrusted with the health and safety of thousands of employees and associated individuals. In such cases you have a duty to ensure that all possibilities are considered. And if you do not do so, you are not doing your job. (Do not challenge me here. Through this pandemic I have worked in as a interim-manager in a homeless shelter, an administrator in a homeless shelter, in a low-income housing complex, and completed a placement with AHS and so I have seen so much COVID fatigue and made so many decisions which were fucking awful because of concerns for community safety.)

Another argument I want to be clear, I believe is inaccurate is the idea COVID-19 is more manageable in the NHL because the players are professional athletes in the peak of health. Well, the players aren’t the only ones in the team bubble. They aren’t the only ones in the building, and those people aren’t always in the mid-20s to mid-30s and in excellent health. Just look at some of the coaches.

But beyond any of that, we’ve got no clue about the long-term impacts of COVID right now. Players make their living by using their bodies and they don’t all rake in 12.5 million a year or have careers that span a decade. They are being to asked to risk themselves for something which, honestly, seems like the definition of non-essential. Please note that’s not saying it’s unimportant, but we didn’t have the NHL for the first six months of the pandemic and we’re all still here…

The NHL failed to consider all possibilities in their protocols. They failed to plan. They failed to communicate. They just failed.

This is obvious in the lack of information provided by the NHL around what would happen if the Vancouver Canucks are unable to finish their season is an easy example of this failure. It really should be an easy to provide answer. In the case of a season ending COVID-19 outbreak, the NHL would institute X Y Z. I don’t know what those are. I don’t care honestly. I have no opinion on win percentage versus forfeits or whatever other metric they could dream up.

What I do care about, and you should to, is that lives are being risked because there is a lack of clear direction. Vancouver is unable to cancel their season right now because of the lack of clarity. The NHL wasn’t concerned about the scheduling concerns on April 5th. Maybe also because of stubbornness, but they must be under tremendous pressure to return to playing hockey games. The NHL is a business after all.

Players have reported feeling uncomfortable leaving their families and homes for a road trip in the near future. But what recourse do they have? They’ve opted into the season and I haven’t seen a clause that allows them to opt out due to this outbreak.

But no one knows what’s going on. And for some Oilers fans maybe finding out what the season looks like going forward is the most vital part of this whole thing. And the NHL has let them down too because who knows… There’s no decision and everything is in limbo and it reminds us all how fragile this whole situation is…. The NHL for many has been an escape from the concerns of living through a pandemic. Now it is just another reminder that this pandemic, like others in human history, does not care who you are.

The NHL is responsible for people’s lives; they cannot be the anti-masker standing outside your local grocery store shouting about how COVID is a hoax and everyone wearing a mask is a sheep. In that respect, it should go without saying (but let me say it anyways), the NHL needs to make some decisions around enhanced COVID-19 protocols and it needs to communicate them. Just waiting for it to get better doesn’t work.