The National Hockey League (“NHL”) entered the 2021-22 season with the hopes of completing a full 82 game schedule, after the 2020-21 season was shortened to 56 games due to the effects of COVID-19. However, COVID-19 has continued to run rampant throughout the NHL, and though only one player is unvaccinated, 73% of the players have tested positive at some point during the season. As a result, the NHL has already postponed more than 100 games.
As questions have risen regarding the likelihood of completing a full 82 game season, the NHL has begun exploring ways to reschedule games that have been postponed. The NHL originally had a three week break in its schedule that was earmarked for the league’s participation in the Olympics. However, in late December, the league announced that players would not participate in the Games. The NHL will be utilizing this new gap in the schedule to make up a majority of the games that have been postponed.
Along with making up games over the Olympic break, the NHL has also begun to relax COVID-19 testing protocols in order to minimize the postponement of games in the future. Prior to the NHL All-Star break, as a result of increasing numbers of cases in December, the NHL and the NHLPA shifted to daily testing, which resulted in a significant number of game postponements. The NHL has softened policies since then, including reducing the isolation period for positive tests from ten days to five days for players who are asymptomatic. Further, the NHL has reintroduced taxi squads to help reduce the likelihood that games are postponed due to a team not having a sufficient number of players.
The league announced that following the NHL All-Star break, it will stop testing asymptomatic players and staff members. However, players who show symptoms will still be required to test. Along with relaxed testing requirements, the new protocols recommend players receive boosters as they become available and updated the mask policy, “strongly” recommending the use of N95 or KN95 masks. It appears the NHL has taken a similar approach to the National Football League, which announced in December 2021 that it would no longer require testing of fully vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals.
The news of the new COVID-19 testing protocols appears to have been well received by those in the league, as many players and staff have advocated for less testing in the NHL. St. Louis Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly said “[w]e’ve got guys vaccinated, double vaccinated … [s]ome guys aren’t showing any symptoms and they’re popping in COVID protocol. I think I’d like to see testing if you have symptoms but it’s not up to me. It’s a league and players’ decision.” Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings general manager, is another strong advocate for less testing. He stated “[a]t the end of the day, our players are testing positive with very little, if any symptoms at all. I don’t see it as a threat to their health at this point. So, I think we need to take it a step further and question why are we even testing guys that have no symptoms.”
While the NHL has relaxed testing protocols for players and staff, cross-border games between U.S and Canadian teams still represent an area of concern for the league. Cross-border games account for almost all of the league’s postponed games. Under the new testing protocols, all players and staff will be tested before cross-border travel, and prior to reentering the country where their team is located.
The requirement of a negative test for entry into both the U.S and Canada has caused some concern for players and staff, especially those on Canadian teams. According to the COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, if a player were to test positive on a cross-border road trip he would be forced to stay behind in the U.S as he waited out the ten days required before reentering Canada. Vancouver defenseman Luke Schenn said, “[g]uys are sometimes holding their breath just hoping they can get home. Sometimes you’re on a ten day road trip and you haven’t seen your wife and your kids in a while and on that last day, you’re just trying not to get a positive test, whether you feel anything or not.”
As the season continues to progress, it will be interesting to see the impact these new protocols will have on the NHL. The NHL likely cannot afford to have long periods of game postponement, as it did in late December, if it plans to complete a full 82 game season. The ability to make up cross-border games is going to be a driving factor in the NHL’s ability to complete this goal and it directly turns on federal COVID-19 regulations in both the U.S and Canada. Therefore, it is to be expected that the NHL will continue to be open to reevaluating its protocols as new information regarding COVID-19 becomes available.
Looking forward to the postseason, playoff series between cross-border teams may prove to be an area of concern for the NHL. If COVID-19 protocols are not relaxed to allow for easier cross-border travel, the NHL may have to consider alternative ways to complete playoff series between U.S and Canadian teams. One potential alternative could be to utilize a “playoff bubble,” similar to what was used in 2020, which is an isolated hub where games are played. However, players are strongly against “bubbles,” as it keeps them away from their families for an extended period of time. Another alternative could be to have Canadian teams relocate to the U.S, similar to the MLB relocating the Toronto Blue Jays to Buffalo. However, choosing a location for Canadian teams may be difficult. One idea would be to relocate Canadian teams to the city of the nearest U.S team that did not qualify for the playoffs. All in all, it will be interesting to see how the NHL handles the 2022 playoffs if COVID-19 protocols are not relaxed.