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Game still on? The NHL and COVID

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With new variants, the NHL needs a better plan for player safety.

Ottawa Senators v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

The Vancouver Canucks most likely have an entire team infected by the Brazilian variant of COVID-19 which is also known as the P.1 variant. Here is a good explainer from the BBC about the various variants of concern (VOC) and why they are so concerning. But to bring this back to the context of the NHL, what does this genuinely mean?

First and foremost, it means that the Canucks could be looking at some incredibly tough times ahead. Word is that some of their players are having a really bad time with COVID which makes sense based on what is known about the VOCs. They have worse symptoms on younger people and COVID can a bitch to anyone who gets it. This could be genuinely tough sledding for the Canucks right now off the ice and hopefully everyone is able to make a full recovery and not suffer from long term effects due to COVID. But what does this actually mean?

Honestly, I don’t know if this is a failure of the league. People still need to do things like go grocery shopping and unless there is a genuine reason for you to not be doing that, I see no reason for someone to be using a valuable delivery slot when they could have their one outing be the exciting trip to the grocery store. If you cannot tell, I have not gotten out much since last March. Micaela Gaudette, wife of Canucks forward Tyler Gaudette, spoke to the media and said that the league told them they did nothing wrong. And I believe it.

The NHL had two lists: requirements including weekly testing (or twice weekly testing) for the players’ families, and daily testing for the players. They also had sent recommendations for things that players and their families should not do including grocery shopping. That doesn’t mean that players’ families had to stop activities like that. Think about that for a minute to realize how ridiculous it is that a season is even being played right now.

Another layer of that is the public health layer for every province. Now all public health rules are different depending on where you live. Ontario is kind of closing things down again, Quebec is just rolling along into a third wave after the second wave never really seemed to end, Manitoba is undergoing an uptick in cases while only loosening restrictions, and Alberta is... well, I will leave you with this to read about Alberta.

This is where I state an unpopular opinion. The NHL should shut it down until people can all be vaccinated. Allow teams to open up their arenas and practice facilities for vaccination sites if they can, offer up trained medical personal to help vaccinate people, use team employees to help run these vaccination centres. But stop playing hockey until all the players are safely inoculated. Shut it down and allow people to properly stay safe and not be in small, confined spaces with poor ventilation, spending time around others on the bench without masks on and in general being in at-risk situations.

This entire pandemic has been about risk mitigation. Our schools are practices in risk mitigation, our shopping should be, our lives have changed to mitigate risks. If kids elect to play sports this year, it will be with masks on. At school, kids wear masks all the time unless they are eating. We are limiting who enters the building and ensuring hands are washed or sanitized whenever someone enters. Kids are sent home at the hint of an illness. It is a major undertaking, but one that has been fairly successful at keeping all people in schools relatively safe.

So what can you do when risk mitigation measures cannot always be taken? At least one person has suggested offering the vaccine to the players and staff working, but that has a few issues attached to it: most of the players are not eligible yet in Canada, but in some places in the US they most likely are eligible. But vaccines are tricky and need time to build up immunity in your body. Needing that period of time would see the NHL having to shut down for a while well they waited for players to build up immunity.

The NHL started the season with multiple outbreaks in the US divisions including almost an entire team becoming sick with the Dallas Stars, and the New Jersey Devils not only having an outbreak, but leading to an outbreak on the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers as well. That probably should have been a sign for the NHL that this was a bad idea to play this season with limited controls in place. They have done an admirable job to get any games played, but it might be time to pack it in for a bit with the VOCs running rampant in many different places. Safety has to come first.

The NHL is now seeing players get sick from VOCs. These VOCs are more contagious and lead to more negative outcomes in young people. They are dealing with a whole different ball game than they were earlier in the season and it is one that poses more dangers to all involved. There has to be a plan going forward that puts the health and safety of everyone involved at the forefront because what they agreed upon in December was not set up for the whole different ballgame that the VOCs put the world in.