Less than a week before the puck is dropped on a new 56-game season, the NHL is now facing the same daunting reality that has plagued the NFL, NBA and MLB for the past 10 months.
Turns out that getting a new campaign off the ground in the midst of a pandemic — with new cases continuing to skyrocket across North America — is much easier said than done.
With the threat of COVID-19 no longer negated via air-tight bubble environments up in Toronto and Edmonton, multiple NHL franchises are already facing hurdles during training camp — with the Columbus Blue Jackets holding 17 players out of practice on Friday morning “out of an abundance of caution and in accordance with NHL COVID-19 protocols,” per a team statement.
Just hours later, the Dallas Stars announced that they would not open their season until at least Jan. 19 due to six players and two staff members testing positive due to COVID-19. The following day? The Penguins canceled their practice due to COVID concerns, while five Kings players were "unfit to participate" in their on-ice session.
So far, the Bruins have had minimal disruption as far as their training camp roster goes on — with only Karson Kuhlman, Oskar Steen and Anton Blidh missing multiple on-ice sessions under the "unfit to participate" designation. Steen returned to the ice on Friday, while Bruce Cassidy did note on Tuesday that Kuhlman's absence was more due to a testing issue than something more serious.
However, even if Boston hasn't had to significantly augment its lineup through the first week of camp, Cassidy acknowledged that additional complications might be inevitable, despite best practices — along with a more regional-based travel schedule — put in place.
"I think for us in the bubble, once you're in there, it was going to be difficult to test positive, because everyone in there was negative," Cassidy said. "So you basically have to bust out or someone would have to slip through the cracks, I guess, getting in there. But I think they did a real good job with that. This is different. I mean, an example for me, I have young kids that do partial remote schooling or they're involved in some hockey that Massachusetts allows them to continue to play — they're being very safe and wearing masks. But who knows, like anything could happen. So it's going to be different. And then there's players in that situation — Bergy (Patrice Bergeron) has kids, John Moore has kids, etc. (David Krejci), Tuukka (Rask). So you just got to be extra careful for the next, I guess it could be as much as six months unless there is a vaccine situation that allows you to open up a little bit.
"But for us, that's the message to the guys — is a little bit of self-discipline to stay out of situations that would allow you to be in contact with people who you don't know, and be in indoor spaces that are crowded. But again, you can be as vigilant as you want. Sometimes your kids might bring it home ... So that's the challenge in front of us, it was a challenge in front of baseball and football as well. Now basketball again, when you're not in a bubble. So that's it. That's all you can do. And let's keep our fingers crossed that our players and our coaches and anybody in hockey ops does the right thing. And then gets a little bit lucky because sometimes you do the right things and you can still contract the virus."
Even with daily testing for COVID (through at least the first four weeks of the regular season to start) and travel parameters such a designated hotel in each city and restrictions on players from going to restaurants, bars and ... well, anywhere that isn't said hotel on the road, a lot is going to hinge on players' self-discipline, coupled with a ton of luck.
"I think you're just trying to limit it as best you can," Matt Grzelcyk said of players cutting down on interactions outside of the rink. "If you can get groceries delivered or get dinner delivered, I think it would make it a lot easier and eliminate a lot of variables to make sure that you're able to go out there and perform in practice or on the ice for a game. ... You just try to stay home as much as you can. That's the kind of the philosophy that I tried to adapt to. It's unfortunate, but these are the times that we're in and it's hit home for a lot of people. So I think we're all in a very fortunate position and trying to make sure that we make the most of this opportunity."
After losing players like David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase to "unfit to participate" designations during the NHL's "Return To Play" plans earlier this summer, Cassidy is well aware of just how much a camp (and a season, for that matter) can go off the rails in a hurry. Given that some of the requirements of the job as an NHL coach don't involve babysitting players on the road, Cassidy acknowledged that Boston's veteran core is going to have to be instrumental in terms of consistently relaying a message of accountability throughout the perilous months ahead.
"It's difficult to follow a player around and make sure he doesn't (go to restricted places), because clearly, you have your freedom to walk, get out on the road, get fresh air etc. ... There's some strict protocols in place and for good reason," Cassidy said. "That's just the way it is right now to be able to get through the season, stay healthy. You have to adhere to it. And that'll be the message to the guys and I hope our leadership group will make sure that they're the ones that are being vocal with the guys about that, because it always means more coming from your own players. And that's a sacrifice you have to make to stay healthy, so your team can compete at the highest level. So that's the ask, and let's hope our players are up for it."
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