COVID-19 may curtail NHL season, keep stars from Olympics

As NHL COVID cases pile up, and games are postponed across the league, what does this mean for Olympic participation and can the full regular season be completed as planned?

On this week's Zone Time, Julian, Justin, Omar and Avry also discuss reports that the Montreal Canadiens have least three women on their list of candidates to replace Marc Bergevin as General Manager, and rank Zegras-Milano goal amongst the greatest plays of the century.

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Video Transcript

JULIAN MCKENZIE: COVID-19 is a very tough topic to discuss. And on Tuesday it was pretty tough. The NHL pretty much got brushed with reality that COVID-19-- And I don't know specifically which variant it might be, but it's still very much a thing.

A whole bunch of players named to the COVID-19 protocol. I don't have the full list, but Brad Marchand among those names, Mathew Barzal among those names, Andrei Svechnikov in Carolina and three other players added to the COVID protocol list. Their game on Tuesday night against Minnesota was postponed.

The Calgary Flames had three guys named to the COVID protocol. And they have games postponed all the way to Thursday. And Connor McDavid spoke about the uptick in cases. And he even gave some commentary on the reported provisions from the IOC when it comes to the Olympics. And he admitted the idea of possibly spending up to five weeks in China in quarantine if he were to test positive for COVID, would be unsettling.

Justin, I want to start with you just because I know you got to write a little bit about what was going on. Just from the vantage point that you have, what was it like seeing all of these different COVID-19 stories pop up, pretty much one after another? And then we can all kind of jump in on this.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I mean, it's particularly concerning, obviously, because clearly the idea that this league would operate without COVID-19 being a major, major force this season was false. It was just naive thinking probably because it is here and it's not going anywhere. And clearly it's something they're going to have to deal with the entire year. And if they don't do anything, I think they risk sort of ruining the integrity of this season because we're seeing teams have to drop off, and get postponements here, and playing with diminished rosters there.

And like, it's just at the point now where they have to make some amendments, because the best laid plans here clearly are not sufficient. So I think the first thing we have to see is a taxi squad implemented. I don't know how easy or difficult that's going to be. But there has to be an option for teams to dip into their reserves in order to keep the train on the tracks, if you will.

And then they've got to think about other things as well like can asymptomatic players just play? Is that a possibility? Or are they going to have to have breaks in the season? Is a hiatus going to be what is needed in order to calm things down a little bit. That latter point, I just don't think that's going to do much at all because it's just going to infiltrate the system once again. It's going to be omnipresent for the immediate future and beyond that.

So they've got to find ways to deal with the fact that COVID-19 is going to be present during this. And I think that starts with the taxi squad and it's probably going to take other measures as well.

OMAR: I think it's an interesting point, Justin, that you bring up the idea of a hiatus, because I wonder if the league is trying to hold on as long as they can up until that Olympic break? And whether the players are going to go to the Olympics or not, it's gone from players like, yeah, we want to go to like, OK, I'm not sure. And now a lot of players are saying 50-50. And I think that 50-50 is more like probably not going to go.

But I think even Alex Pietrangelo, who was already named to Team Canada, seems very doubtful of going just because of getting over the quarantine, and the fact that he has three young kids at home, and just thinking of what's going to happen with that if things go wrong there. There's a lot of factors that come into play.

So I wonder if the league, knowing that the likelihood of them going to the Olympics is kind of dwindling, if they want to take maybe that three weeks to kind of go on a semi hiatus and try to get COVID in check within the league. But to your point, like it's going to happen. And the fact that if anyone is shocked that cases are rising in the league, then I'm sorry, this is something that's going to happen anyway.

And I think that's why it was the importance of making sure vaccination rates within the league were as high as possible in the event that this takes place. But there needs to be something that's happening. Because was it Colorado, I think at the beginning of the year, who had to play multiple games with 19 players or something? So the fact that all of these teams are just losing players left and right, and they don't have any other pools or systems to grab from, there needs to be something.

And like now, you just try to think, are they going to be able to finish the season? Are we actually going to be able to play a full 82-game season or is something going to be ended short? So seeing a day like today where you've seen 20-plus players put on COVID protocol, like it really brings you back to the reality of things, what's going on in the world.

AVRY LEWIS MCDOUGALL: I do wonder, Omar, if we'll have a team fishing season, say only playing 78 games, 79 games. Because we reschedule games, but eventually if you go into June, whatever time, June, July, the league might say we don't have time to get all these games in. You might see a team play 80 or 81 games which would be unfortunate for all teams. But also to the point of the possibility of a hiatus, what does it mean now for the World Juniors? Is that going to still happen into the red year? What's going to happen there? Is the IHHS still going to be comfortable bringing in these international teams to Alberta in just a few days?

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's a really interesting point that has not really been brought up that much. Because, yeah, it's kind of weird to say that the World Juniors, obviously we know at the point of the year when they come up. But in the light of everything that has gone on in the last few days with the NHL, there's a part of me that's almost kind of forgot that the World Juniors are happening. And the fact that, yes, there are all these different teams from all around the world who are going to come to Canada, who are going to participate in this tournament. I don't know.

I can't give you an answer with the World Juniors because I've been more wrapped up with the Olympics. And the more I hear about these cases and the more I hear hesitancy-- Like, listening to Connor McDavid talk today, I know he mentioned the idea that he's a guy who definitely wants to play at the Olympics. He wants to gather as much information as he can about this. And he's going to put himself in a position where he can go to this tournament.

And in talking to other people about this too, there are probably other guys who want this too. But at some point if the cases keep going up, and there's more developments with the variants that are out there, like at some point the National Hockey League is going to have to step in and just say, no, we can't afford to do this. We can't afford to put our players out in harm's way like this. I think that's what's going to happen.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Well, I think it's worth considering what's most dangerous here? You bring up a good point with the World Junior as well. I'm not sure if it's going to be played in a bubble, but it will be strict. And it will probably be safe if the athletes do get to Edmonton without carrying COVID-19 with them. But on the Olympic thing, yeah, the potential for an outbreak or three to five week quarantine, yeah, that's there.

But what's probably more dangerous during that three weeks, other than the Olympics, is every NHLer going on vacation and mixing and mingling with the public, and then bringing it back after that. I mean, if you go on hiatus, you can't monitor everything that these players are doing.

So I mean, yeah, the Olympic thing is separate because it's just this completely different world with completely different rules and so on and so forth. But that's why I just don't think the hiatus is going to do anything, because you can't just expect players to sit on their hands and not do anything with the free time, the little free time, that they are given.

So it's all about managing this virus still. It all comes back to management. So what can you do to better manage it? Again, that's a conversation for people smarter than us. But I think the first thing with just getting the season done is that taxi squad, is more resources to play these games because clearly, and thankfully, people are getting infected, but no one's having-- like it's more of a nuisance than anything else. They're not allowed to play when they feel asymptomatic and fine to play.

So that's like the big issue in terms of getting the season done. There are a lot of other issues, but NHL just has to manage itself right now first. And they've got to do something about the current state of how these rosters are getting put together on a daily basis, and whether these games are going to get played.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's the silver lining that I think has to be brought up in all this. If this was all happening last year, we didn't even know at this point last year if an NHL season was going to happen, let alone when it was going to start. And I think we were starting to hear about batches of vaccines being deployed to Canada. I think the States might have had it around this time last year. I could be wrong on that.

But we didn't know anything about how the vaccine was going to be deployed, its efficacy rate, there are people still figuring out is Pfizer, is Moderna right? There were so many more questions about the vaccine than what we have right now. And while I understand that for regular people like us for and in the respective provinces that we're in, we're subjected to different regulations from our respective governments as to when we can get our boosters.

But like Milan Lucic, who I believe was named to COVID protocol for the Flames, he tweeted out some statements saying like, hey, I'm going to be fine. And there are guys who have already gotten boosters. I expect NHL players, at the very least the ones who are vaccinated, there are probably ones who have already gotten booster shots and ones who will also be on the way.

That's not to downplay COVID, but I guess one hope that I have is is that because of what we experienced in the last year, and what other findings are there about the other variants, maybe we could at least be in a better-- at least the NHL players maybe could be in a better position to deal with the virus.

That being said, I could totally see the NHL being a little bit more cautionary and saying, you know what, maybe it's not worth having players go in a situation where they can be in quarantine for up to five weeks. And maybe this is foolish to think of it, but maybe these different COVID cases that have come up, especially since most of them, if not all of them, are guys who have been vaccinated, as Justin said it could just be more than a nuisance, sorry not more than a nuisance, it could be just a nuisance.

It could just be you your day where you feel like crap, and then after that you feel fine, you test negative. You go back to the rink or your COVID protocol for however long. My hope is that the cases that have come up, as scary as it all looks now, with all of them coming one by one, that ultimately it doesn't turn into anything worse than what it is right now. But that's also a hope, and I'm not an epidemiologist. And it's entirely possible it could go another way. But it could go a way that's good too, that's the only way I can really reason with all this.

OMAR: Yeah, I saw a lot of people, when a lot of the players being put in COVID protocol were getting announced today, a lot of people on Twitter saying like, oh, here we go again, like this is March 2020 all over again. But we've all touched on it. The big difference is that before it was new and there was no vaccine. And now there is a vaccine and there's a way to go about it. And I think Justin nails it on the head. It's just about how the NHL is going to manage it and how they're going to go about it.

I think the fact that there hasn't been a taxi squad added already is a little foolish. So hopefully now they take a second to think teams just need help. Teams just need something, another pool of people that they can make use of in games. And especially for teams who are up against the cap. That sucks if you have players who are on protocol and you're up against the cap. You can't call anyone up and say, OK cool, we're just going to dress two less people. So I think there needs to be something for teams to make use of to keep their teams full, if that makes sense.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Just allow the schedule to continue.

OMAR: Yeah, exactly. If it's a taxi squad, if it's something else, allow the teams to be able to play out their schedule. But again, I think the vaccine being around, I think is a big game changer and the difference between what we're seeing now or how things are to be going now versus how they were last year where literally the whole of professional sports needed to be shut down to be able to deal with this.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Avery, I'll let you get last word on this topic. And then we'll move on to the Montreal Canadiens and the fact that they are looking to interview three female candidates for their vacant GM job. But Avery, I'll let you get last word on this.

AVRY LEWIS MCDOUGALL: My point is that hopefully we do find a way to play out the season because we don't want another season abbreviated by COVID outbreaks. But it may come to a point where the time squad is returning. You might see most teams filled up with guys playing AHL. It is what it is to get to the finish line. But I wouldn't be surprised if we see-- and I'm not saying teams, but if a team is caught breaking guidelines, it would not shock me if the NHL says, you know what, we can't wait for you guys, you're handed a forfeit loss.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Oh, that'd be pretty drastic but also, wow. OK, at the end of the day, the NHL has a job to do to try to finish its season out. So if it has to get to that point, it has to get to that point. It's obviously a situation we're going to be monitoring. Pretty much ever since we started "Zone Time" COVID has pretty much been a thing. So of course, we're going to see it come up in future episodes whenever we can.

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