Sixteen months after choosing Canada as the safest place to complete its season, the NHL now faces a series of hurdles north of the border that complicate its bid to power through the pandemic all over again.
The NFL and NBA can swiftly move to adopt shorter isolation periods for those who test positive for the coronavirus in accordance with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the two leagues also can consider not testing asymptomatic, vaccinated players.
The NHL with seven teams north of the border must balance stricter COVID-19 regulations set by Canadian federal and provincial authorities.
“We have always had the issue of differing rules in different jurisdictions, so it’s not a new challenge,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday, hours before play resumed after an extended holiday break. “(We are) navigating choppy waters the best we can."
The CDC recommendation to trim quarantine time from 10 to five days prompted an NHL review of its virus protocols. But there is little evidence Canada is ready to move like the U.S. toward looser rules as provinces clamp down on crowd sizes and impose additional restrictions.
“It’s not in the mind of the state or the population and especially not in the mind of the health field workers,” said University of Ottawa professor Gilles LeVasseur, who specializes in U.S.-Canada relations. “Right now it’s more, ‘Let’s protect, let’s secure and let’s close in and let’s do another confinement.’ ... There is not that mentality of saying that it’s part of us, it’s part of who we are and let’s live with it.”
That path in the U.S., even among other sports leagues, is causing some frustration among hockey players who would like to see the NHL relax some protocols, most notably reducing mandated absences from 10 days for those with COVID-19 symptoms.
“It seems like it’s always Canada that’s the reason that a lot of things don’t happen, so I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that,” Tampa Bay Lightning forward and NHL Players Association representative Alex Killorn said. “But it seems reasonable that we would do that and implement it as soon as possible."
Teammate Steven Stamkos on Monday said it was a fine line, while acknowledging discussion about testing less is happening around NHL locker rooms. Veteran executive Lou Lamoriello said Sunday the league and union are doing the best they can without being able to control Canadian federal and provincial rules.
“Unless we weren’t playing in Canada and we didn’t have teams in Canada, you could consider (not testing asymptomatic vaccinated players), and certainly it would be (considered),” the New York Islanders general manager said. “But with the guidelines and rules of Canada, it’s impossible to have happen. We wouldn’t be able to have games without the testing that is required to play in Canada.”
The NHL postponed the Detroit Red Wings' game at the Islanders scheduled for Wednesday, the 71st to be rescheduled for virus-related reasons this season. More could be coming, especially in Canada early in 2022 to allow for fans in arenas in Montreal and Winnipeg, which is currently not possible because of provincial restrictions in Quebec and Manitoba.
The American Hockey League, which has 26 teams in the U.S. and five in Canada, is wrestling with the same issues. While the NHL has postponed 70 games, the AHL is at 61 and is trying to play as many as possible without widespread disruption.
That comes with the acknowledgment that it's more difficult for the teams in Canada to avoid lengthy absences.
“You’re always subject to what the Canadian government’s going to do, and you respect that and our Canadian teams know that,” AHL president and CEO Scott Howson told The AP on Tuesday. “Our protocols are always subject to whatever the Canadian government’s saying, so if we do something that’s less restrictive, but the Canadian government is obviously saying, ‘Well, you have to do this,’ then that’s what the Canadian teams have to do."
One option is having different testing and isolation requirements for the U.S. and Canada.
“There’s arguments on both sides,” Howson said. "You want the level playing field, but for us, the 26 teams that could have a less restrictive system, why should they be punished?"
The NHL is testing players, coaches and staff daily through Jan. 7 as part of enhanced virus protocols, which include a return to mask-wearing and restrictions for road teams. Taxi squads are back until the All-Star break to try to keep the season going.
As for Canada following the U.S. strategy of living with the virus, LeVasseur does not expect that shift for at least two more weeks while health officials monitor case and hospitalization numbers.
"If nothing turns out to be a catastrophe in the hospitals, then you’ll have that second mentality," he said. “But until we get to Jan. 15, nothing is going to be opening to that mentality. It’ll be more closed in, secure, confinement and restrictions. That is the pattern that we’re going to see.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press