COVID-19 continues to be a primary concern for people all around the world, and the National Hockey League has been no exception. As of February 16th, 2021, 35 NHL games have been suspended due to COVID-19. There have been numerous teams affected, including the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, and Philadelphia Flyers.
Three of the aforementioned teams are in the top four teams of their divisions and these stoppages in play can result in significant momentum swings as the playoff race presses on. The Honda West division will be one to keep a close eye on as both the Knights and the Avalanche have had quality starts halted as a result of positive COVID-19 cases.
In response to the impacts COVID-19 has had on the league, the NHL has acted to update their COVID-19 protocols in hopes to minimize future disruptions of teams. The league has increased the frequency at which players, team personnel, and officials will receive testing. Everyone involved in game-day will receive point of care (POC) testing, which provides rapid, day-of results. If an individual were to test positive, they will be isolated per the league’s Positive Test Protocol and will not participate in any game activities.
A new strategy, which may be considered significantly more impactful on the day-to-day operations of league personnel is the new quarantine measures that will be in place. All team staff (players, coaches, training/equipment staff) will be required to not leave their place of residence except for league activities, outdoor exercise, and to perform essential activities. This strategy has been enacted to reduce the introduction of the virus into team environments from outside sources.
Team meetings will now be required to be virtual and players and coaches are being advised to minimize any time spent together unless all participants are sufficiently distanced and masked.
One of the more interesting protocols the league is adopting is a strategic revised setting plan that utilizes the proposed 90-day immunity that individuals have following a positive COVID-19 result. Using the recently positive individuals as a “buffer” around other players (within the locker room, during meals, or traveling) who have never tested positive or have tested positive longer than 90 days prior may provide some protection and reduce transmission within the team.
The final significant measure the league will adopt is increasing ventilation on the bench and in the penalty box. The glass behind the bench and the box will be removed to promote increased airflow in and out of those areas. This will help to avoid COVID-19 virus particles from being isolated to those areas where players and staff are sitting during the games.
It hasn’t been explicitly stated by the league, but an important question to ask is if another bubble system could be considered. The bubble system that the NHL utilized during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs proved to be highly effective but came with frustrations from those who had to live within the bubble during that time. The stress and time away from family even forced Boston Bruins star goaltender Tukka Rask to leave the bubble amid the Bruins playoff run. The idea of another bubble would likely be frustrating to more than just Rask if implemented again.
The continuous efforts by the league are appreciated as it is clearly demonstrating a willingness to adapt with new strategies to keep the league running amid this modified season. Time will tell if there will be enough schedule room to accommodate additional re-scheduling at the end of the season and start the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a timely manner.
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