The coronavirus has caused a February full of upheaval for the National Hockey League, and there are still three weeks left in the month.
In the past 10 days alone, six teams were shelved due to pandemic precautions—Vegas, Buffalo, New Jersey, Minnesota, Colorado and on Tuesday, Philadelphia—causing the postponement and rescheduling of 31 games, affecting a number of healthy NHL teams. Earlier, Dallas and Carolina were also shut down. The NHL had already announced Monday seven more postponements involving the Sabres, Devils and Wild, although those games have yet to be rescheduled. All three teams indefinitely have been benched.
On Tuesday, the NHL announced that the Flyers vs. Capitals game would be postponed because a second Philadelphia player had tested positive.
Interestingly, none of the seven Canadian teams, playing in their own division north of the border have thus far been compromised.
Teams are only playing within their regions and divisions this season, which has been shortened from 82 games to 56. Out west, the Arizona Coyotes were on their first extended road trip, with a pair of games each originally slated in St. Louis, Minnesota and Colorado, when coronavirus cases first paused the seasons of the Wild and Avalanche in their tracks.
With the Coyotes stuck in St. Louis, the NHL moved up two games from the end of Arizona’s schedule to the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, where the Coyotes played their fourth straight game against the Blues Monday night, winning 4-3 in a shootout. The NHL on Tuesday booked an additional game between the two teams at Gila River Arena on Friday. Added to two games this Saturday and next Monday, the two teams will have played seven consecutive regular season games against each other, the first time that’s ever happened outside the playoffs in NHL history.
But COVID is causing strange adjustments.
The Coyotes opened the trip with four days off and will have another four-day break before resuming play again in Glendale this weekend. The games at Minnesota and Colorado still have to be rescheduled.
“We said at the beginning of the year that as coaches and players you have to be flexible,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said Monday during a media conference call. “When we get this revised schedule I’m sure it’s not going to be friendly. I’m sure there’s going to be a huge number of games slammed into a short period of time. We’re going to have to be prepared for that, too.”
The NHL has already stretched the regular season schedule to May 10 with the usual four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs starting shortly thereafter. That’s 868 games in 112 days. If the playoffs end by late July, the league hopes to begin the 2021-22 season on time in October, putting the 32 teams back on a pre-pandemic schedule.
Last year, after the season was paused March 12, the Cup wasn’t awarded to Tampa Bay until the end of September after two months of playoff games in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles. That and other COVID-related logistics caused the current regular season to be pushed back until Jan. 13.
The opening of new buildings for the Islanders on Long Island and the expansion Kraken in Seattle next season are predicated on full capacity. But the NHL is nowhere near that yet. Only three teams right now are playing in front of a very low number of fans in Dallas, Florida and Arizona. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to change soon, even as more people are vaccinated and coronavirus cases and death rates are beginning to curtail.
The issue now, just like the other three major sports leagues, is for the NHL to get through this season. To that end, the league and its players’ union instituted tougher protocols last week after the rapid spread of infections shut down so many teams.
“With about 20% of our season played, we are mindful of the fact that we might be seeing a more aggressive transmission of the virus and will continue to make adjustments to our protocols as we consult on a daily basis with, and adhere to, the recommendations of our medical advisors,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “It’s important to note that, while we have seen almost 100 players enter our COVID protocols, fewer than half have done so because of confirmed positive tests—and, among that group, many have not been symptomatic.”
The enhanced protocols include removing Plexiglass shielding from the behind the bench during games to promote better air flow; a limit on time spent by on-ice personnel at the arena including no arrivals any earlier than an hour, 45 minutes, prior to the game, and enhanced air filtration around the bench areas.
With COVID cases above 27 million and deaths at nearly 465,000 in the U.S, teams know they are facing a bracing battle as they travel. The National Basketball Association, which had postponed 24 games since its season began Dec. 22, has yet to announce its second-half schedule.
The disease hasn’t infected the Coyotes, who’ve limited their exposure on the road to the hotel and the arena as per the league protocols.
“It’s definitely not easy,” Coyotes forward Lawson Crouse said after Monday morning’s pregame skate in St. Louis. “It’s pretty uncomfortable, but you have to do it.”
“We’ve bubbled pretty well,” Tocchet added. “The mask thing [is so important]. We’re doing well on the road, where you just cocoon yourself in the small environment you’re in. And at home, can you somehow duplicate that? I know it’s hard, but you do it as safely as possible. We’re going home again, and so far we’ve done pretty well, knock on wood.”
(This story has been updated with details of cancellations in the headline, second, third and sixth paragraphs.)