The COVID-19 Concern

As we reach Super Bowl weekend in February, there is a harsh reality for hockey. They’re facing something different this season.

Much like the NFL and NBA, the NHL has adversity due to the virtual unknown. Unlike last summer when they were successful in executing a great postseason due to two bubbles thanks to Toronto and Edmonton without a single player testing positive for COVID-19, the league is in dire straits already. Not even a month in and there have been many players from teams who have either been positive or in COVID Protocol. That’s caused seven teams to postpone games for as much as a week.

Having already seen the pandemic hit the Stars, Golden Knights and Hurricanes early, four more teams have had to pause their schedule. They include the Hurricanes, Devils, Sabres, Wild and Avalanche. All are not currently playing which has resulted in several cancelations affecting other teams.

At the moment, the Devils have 17 players in COVID-19 Protocol. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was added to the list earlier today. He joins a lengthy list that includes Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, Ty Smith, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, Andreas Johnsson, Nikita Gusev, Nathan Bastian, Mike McLeod, Damon Severson, Janne Kuokanen, Travis Zajac, Pavel Zacha, Matt Tennyson, Sami Vatanen and Connor Carrick.

At least starting goalie Mackenzie Blackwood is no longer part of it. After a great start to the season, he hasn’t played since making 47 saves to hold off the Rangers on Jan. 19. The Devils have been forced to start mostly Scott Wedgewood with Eric Comrie winning his first game in last Sunday’s rematch at Buffalo. A game that shouldn’t have been played. Something resident Devils blogger Hasan referred to a few days ago. The Sabres even had concerns going in, but the NHL gave the go-ahead. A huge miscalculation.

Here’s the thing. Nobody knows if the virus was transferred during the game. That hasn’t been proven. However, the NHL announced some changes to their rules in an effort to make it safer for its players. Most notable is the removal of glass panels behind benches to allow for better airflow. They also don’t want any players reporting to the arena for a game until one hour 45 minutes before puck drop. The exception is medical treatment for injuries. There must be a mandatory six feet of space between players in the locker room.

With about 20 percent of our season played, we are mindful of the fact that we might be seeing a more aggressive transmission of the virus and will continue to make adjustments to our Protocols as we consult on a daily basis with, and adhere to, the recommendations of our medical advisors,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday in a statement.

Bettman added that nearly 100 players entered COVID Protocols. Less than half were due to confirmed positive results. Most cases have been asymptomatic. The most important issue is the players’ safety. Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, the NHL will continue to closely monitor the situation and make necessary adjustments.

Hopefully, they won’t have to consider pausing the season. Every team that’s been negatively impacted have been in U.S. cities. It isn’t surprising given how poorly the virus has been handled. There doesn’t seem to be any control despite vaccinations finally being made available. The problem is they must continue to prioritize elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, who are more at risk.

Much like basketball, hockey has been hurt by the pandemic. In less than a month, the NHL has postponed 26 games. Some have been rescheduled while many are still to be determined. It isn’t a fun time for anyone.

As great as it is to have the sport back, prioritizing safety and precautions are more crucial than playing games. The NHL believes it will be able to complete a 56-game season with it concluding in early May. They did leave some space just in case.

It’s hard to believe that things will improve. The truth is nobody can predict what lies ahead. In what’s already been a crazy three and a half weeks that’s made it feel like an eternity due to the postponements, the cold winter continues to punish much of the Midwest and East Coast with up to two feet of snow dumped in the New York and New Jersey area. A polar vortex is being predicted with record breaking low temperatures coming that could even reach warmer states like Florida. None of this is good.

I honestly have no idea how the rest of the year will go. In Year Two of the awful Coronavirus, it doesn’t look promising. Even if you’re the most optimistic hockey or sports fan, you have to be concerned. People’s livelihood is more important.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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