A Rundown of the NHL COVID-19 Protocols

Photo via: CBS Philly

With the Flyers NHL season just 31 short days away, the NHL has sent out its 2021-22 COVID-19 protocols to every team via an internal memo. I wanted to preface this by saying that I know we’re all getting sick of reading about COVID, so just get the vaccine, please! Even the NHLPA has strongly encouraged that every player get vaccinated. In fact, it has been suggested that over 85% of NHL players are vaccinated

Of the four major sports in America/Canada (sorry, MLS but soccer just isn’t that popular) the NHL has provided some of the strictest protocols and regulations. Partly due to the large amount of international travel players and teams are facing, the NHL is ensuring that it will not face the problems that have plagued the NFLand MLB: delaying games due to multiple players testing positive.

The Unvaccinated Have Serious Restrictions

Of the most notable regulations, the NHL has authorized teams to suspend unvaccinated players who are “unable to participate in team activities.” This includes if a player is ill with the virus or if they are unable to travel due to governmental regulations. This could be huge with the rise of the Delta variant. The US-Canadian border just opened up, but you must be vaccinated in order to enter if you are a non-Canadian citizen. This could be a problem for unvaccinated players and therefore their team, as surprisingly, only 43% of NHL players are Canadian. These suspensions are unpaid, meaning they lose 1 day of pay for every day they are unable to participate. However, this is not necessarily a blanket statement—if it is determined an unvaccinated player contracted the virus through the course of employment as a hockey player. How this can be proven? I am unsure. One thing I am sure of, however, is that the risk of these suspensions make it tough for players to pass up the vaccine. The NHL is doing something my dad has been saying employers should do for months: hitting the unvaccinated where it hurts—right in the pockets. 

In addition, there are incredibly strict guidelines unvaccinated players face when they go to away games. The NHL has (rightfully, in my opinion) limited their ability to move around freely. The unvaccinated can only travel to their hotel rooms, to the practice arena, and to the actual arena. They cannot even go to the hotel bar, restaurant, gym, or pool. They can’t even have guests over. They shouldn’t even think about carpooling.

Moreover, the NHL has strongly discouraged the unvaccinated from even eating or drinking on team planes, attend bars or clubs, or even eat indoors with members outside of their households or bubbles. This provides some insight into the NHL and the NHLPA’s position: players must do everything in their power to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading the virus.

Something else to consider: the NHL is allowing its players to participate in the Olympics for the first time since 2014. However, in order for players to represent their countries they must be vaccinated. It makes total sense when you think about it: why allow unvaccinated people to gather at an event where there will be thousands of people from all over the globe? It could be very problematic as we have seen how one case can turn into ten and ten can turn into fifty, etcetera, etcetera. 

What about non-players, such as coaches and training staff? Any persons whose job it is to be within 12 feet of the players must be vaccinated. 

Compared to Vaccinated Players

Compared to vaccinated players, the unvaccinated face a stricter day-to-day life. Before attending training camp, they must quarantine for a full week. The vaccinated don’t need to. Additionally, the unvaccinated face daily testing, while the vaccinated face testing at least once every three days. Perhaps most importantly, if a vaccinated player contracts COVID-19 they will not face suspension, nor will they be docked pay. This is an important distinction; the vaccinated do not face any major restrictions, nor do they face any chance of an unpaid suspension. This may be the NHL throwing the vaccinated a bone. Or it could be a policy decision: the vaccinated did the right thing by both league and CDC guidelines and therefore should not be punished for a breakthrough. Either way, the NHL is pushing for its players to get vaccinated, and we are here for it. 

Assistant Coaches Dropping Like Flies

Within the first two weeks of the NHL policy memo being sent out, two assistant coaches have resigned for refusing to get the vaccine. First it was Sharks (now former) assistant coach Rocky Thompson who stepped down, saying because he was not vaccinated (for a medical exemption) he could not fulfill his duties as a coach. Then, earlier this week, Columbus Blue Jackets assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre (that’s a hockey name if I’ve ever seen one) was relieved of his duties only three months after he was hired because he refused to be vaccinated. 

At least Alain Vigneault is vaccinated. That’s my coach.

Arena Protocols

The NHL has not commented on how its teams should approach allowing fans back into arenas, leaving the decision up to each organization. Some teams, like the newest one in hockey, the Seattle Kraken, are playing safe by ensuring that only the vaccinated will be allowed into the arena. On the other hand, teams like the Florida Panthers are not requiring vaccines nor face masks to enter the game. How teams handle their fans returning will be something to watch as the season unfolds. Personally, I wish they’d be the first professional sports league to require all fans to be vaccinated before attending games. A boy can dream.

The NHL Doing It (mostly) Right

In short, the NHL is doing many of the right things: they’re requiring any staff member who comes within twelve feet of players to be vaccinated, they’re making it difficult on unvaccinated players, and they’re ready to suspend any unvaccinated player who contracts COVID-19 without pay. These are all the right things—getting the vaccine rate higher and higher will help end this pandemic. The only complaint that I personally have is that I wish they would mandate that in order for fans to attend games in-person they must be vaccinated. 

In the words of my favorite Buffalo-based store: Together we will see it through. 

An Update on the Flyers

In a recent interview, Chuck Fletcher (the Flyers GM) said that all of the Flyers will be vaccinated before the season starts. He added that they are already very close. He may be the first general manager of an hockey team to publicly state that all of the players were going to be vaccinated. This has gotten me even more excited for the Flyers (and hockey) season. I am just really glad Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier won’t be like Phillies “ace” Aaron Nola and (1) not got the shot and (2) blame the vaccine on injuries.

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3L & Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo Environmental Law Journal. Sad fan of the Philadelphia sports teams and Tottenham Hotspur. I enjoy writing and learning about the intersection of sports and business law, with a focus on the NHL. H2P!

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