While the 2020-21 NHL season would never have been a normal regular season, the league administration has arguably failed their players. Whether it be expedited returns to play, the allowance of countless dirty plays that had no regard for the safety of other players, or the neglect to show any real punishment for unacceptable actions, the NHL organization has not been able to uphold a level of safety or security for the athletes who play within it.
NHL’s Failure to Give Appropriate Punishment
When looking for the first example of this negligence, one must look no farther than the continued play of Washington Capitals player, Tom Wilson. Wilson is a repeat offender to some absolutely gruesome plays, and the league knows this. However, they seemingly do not care as even for truly awful things, they either do not place any punishment on the player, or the punishment they choose will be an absolute joke. This can recently be seen in the games between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers.
During this set of games, Wilson has not only made a move that was deemed roughing by the NHL Department of Player Safety but Pavel Buchnevich was also thrown down after the play was stopped. While this alone would consist of roughing, Wilson then continued to punch Buchnevich in the head while he was down, after already having a press on the player’s neck and shoulders. This move could have caused injury, but fortunately for the player, he was okay.
A later play would then see Wilson going at star player Artemi Panarin, in a play that did not receive any punishment from the Department of Player Safety. The move-in question saw Wilson take Panarin down to the ice, and continue to punch him in the face, not having dropped the gloves at this point. Wilson then continued to lift and throw Panarin back down onto the ice, pulling Panarin with him the entire time as the refs tried to pull the two apart. This play was arguably savage in manner and resulted in a season-ending injury on Panarin, who was fortunate to escape without anything more serious.
This sees only the beginning of many failures for the league, as Wilson was not even given a suspension for his offense, but rather a $5,000 fine. This fine equals the fine that was given to Connor McDavid for a late elbow on Jesperi Kotkaniemi, which, while unsportsmanlike and dangerous, McDavid is not a repeat offender and this hit did not result in any injury to Kotkaniemi.
As well, later that night Philadelphia Flyers player Shayne Gostisbehere laid a hit after a goal that saw Pittsburgh Penguins players Mark Friedman fly into the boards, which resulted in Gostisbehere being given a two-game suspension. This hit, again, has not reportedly seen an injury to Friedman.
The question then has to be raised if the NHL Department of Player Safety had really thought this punishment through. The result of Wilson not being given any suspension or serious punishment was over 100 penalty minutes in the first period of the following Rangers vs Capitals game on Wednesday night. This was due largely to six fights breaking out early in the first period, as well as the obvious tension and grudge being held from Buchnevich towards Wilson. Wilson was also assessed with a ten-minute misconduct penalty and received an upper-body injury, as the game officials had to make a clear statement about what was going on in the game.
The league could have avoided the majority of fights, ill will, and another player being injured in this game if they had actually cared about their players, and given out a punishment that would be appropriate for the actions taken.
NHL’s Failure to Allow Recovery Time for Players Effected by COVID-19
The NHL has a strict COVID-19 policy in place, which states that players must return three negative COVID tests, as well as show no symptoms, however, it leaves interpretation for the NHL to decide on the rescheduling of games and of season completion depending on the health of players. This room for interpretation saw the Vancouver Canucks organization being expected to return to play after not being on the ice for a number of weeks, with only one scrimmage and one practice in coming back from an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.
This decision led to a fair bit of outcry in the community as players and fans alike acknowledged and stated that this was not enough time to get back into shape to play a full 60-minute hockey game against teams that are still in peak physical condition. As well, it saw safety concerns, as COVID-19 affects the respiratory system, and expecting players to go directly back into playing hard to try and earn a playoff spot would put a serious strain on the already weakened and damaged system, as well as other potential long-lasting health risks.
After hearing public outcry, the NHL rearranged the planned schedule but still saw the result being that the Canucks would have to play almost every other day for the rest of the season, putting massive strain on the players and not allowing a large amount of time to recover from any minor injuries that would be sustained. This then raises the likelihood of long-term injuries to players, as well as the increased need to use the injury protocols, which see the Canucks playing as a largely weakened team.
The Canucks are not the only team to suffer from COVID-19 related schedule changes but have arguably been the hardest hit by these changes in their play schedule. The overall effect of the COVID-19 protocol-related player absences has been the underperformance of certain teams, as they end up missing a lot of their talented players and goalscorers, and having to instead play others out of position to avoid risking the loss of a player on waivers.
Obviously, there are going to be some slip-ups, as testing is not guaranteed to catch a COVID case 100% of the time, however, the league has the potential to handle things in a possibly safer way, as players and staff health is at stake. One such solution could be seen through the movement of players who may have been in contact with COVID-19 into isolation once it is known that they may have been in contact, especially if that contact may have been during a game.
There needed to be more time in between the return to practice and return to play of teams that have been affected by COVID-19. While it is understandable that the league will look to stick to their schedule, and have to with their funding, the safety of players and staff should naturally come first.
When all of these factors are combined with the rumors started by Vegas Golden Knights goalie, Robin Lehner, that the league gave players no choice other than to be vaccinated even if they were uncomfortable with the vaccine or with the chance of side-effects altering their season, the NHL has largely failed the players in terms of COVID-19 and their handling of the situation.
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