Faced with increased interruptions to its schedule as players and coaches enter COVID-19 protocol, the NHL on Thursday announced a series of additional measures that are designed to reduce the risk of exposing personnel to the novel coronavirus.
Among the most visible measures will be removing the glass behind the home and visitors’ benches in each arena. According to a news release, the change is intended “To allow for air flow to more easily move away from the benches where Players and Coaches are in close proximity to one another during games.” Apparently, referees will have to use their imagination in calling delay of game penalties for shooting the puck over glass that isn’t there anymore.
The NHL finished the 2019-20 season in bubbles set up in Edmonton and Toronto but did not attempt to replicate a bubble setup this season because players didn’t want to be away from home for the time it will take to play even an abbreviated schedule. The season was cut from 82 games to 56 and the league’s 31 teams were realigned to minimize travel, with the seven Canada-based teams grouped in one division to avoid dealing with border-crossing restrictions. Teams are playing games only within their respective divisions.
The Minnesota Wild this week had games postponed through at least next Tuesday because several players became unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol. That number grew to seven on Thursday. The Buffalo Sabres’ schedule was put on pause through at least next Monday for the same reason. On Thursday, the Sabres announced that coach Ralph Krueger had tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Thursday, 16 members of the New Jersey Devils were listed as unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol. Two Kings — Andreas Athanasiou and Blake Lizotte — also were on the list, as were five members of the Sabres, three members of the Chicago Blackhawks, and two members of the Washington Capitals. Several other teams listed one player unavailable. The “unavailable” classification can mean a player had an unconfirmed positive test, a player has had symptoms of the virus, a player has been in contact with someone who has the virus, a player had a confirmed positive test, or is in quarantine for travel-related reasons. The NHL publishes a daily list of players who are unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol but does not specify the reason in each case.
“With about 20 percent 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,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a news release. “It is 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.
“Our priority has been and will continue to be to act conservatively with an abundance of caution, understanding that there are many things about the transmission of COVID-19 that are still being discovered. As a result, we won’t hesitate to take additional measures as indicated by what we are learning and as directed by our medical advisers.”
Other measures instituted Thursday include limiting the time players spend in an arena by mandating that they can’t arrive more than an hour and 45 minutes before puck drop except to get treatment or otherwise prepare for a game and urging them to leave as soon as possible after games. Meetings will be conducted virtually when possible. Clubs were told to ensure there’s a distance of at least six feet between players’ locker stalls. In addition, the league is considering mandating teams to use portable air cleaners behind the bench.