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21 Dec, 2021 13:52

NHL ‘pauses’ season despite boasting of near-100% vaccination rate

NHL ‘pauses’ season despite boasting of near-100% vaccination rate

The NHL has brought forward its annual holiday break by two days amid a surge of Covid-19 infections, in spite of previously boasting of an almost 100% vaccination rate among its 32 teams.

The facilities of each of the league's 32 teams will be closed from Wednesday to Sunday. The move comes after a joint declaration from NHL officials and the league's Players' Association on Sunday in which they suggested that measures must be taken in order to avoid a total shutdown of the league.

As things stands, players will be permitted to return to team facilities on Sunday ahead of a proposed resumption of play on December 27. 

The step means that there are just three games remaining on the league schedule before the break, and brings to 49 the number of games which have so far been postponed this season – with 44 of those coming in the past two weeks. 

It was reported by ESPN on Monday that as many as 15% of NHL players are currently in Covid-19 protocols for suspected infections and/or close contact situations. 

This comes after league officials had previously heralded their efforts in compelling almost all of the NHL's 700-pluss players to receive vaccinations against Covid-19. 

"Our vaccination rate is incredible," said commissioner Gary Bettman in October. "All of our officials are vaccinated. All of the personnel that come into contact with the players are vaccinated.

"It creates a safer environment for everybody. It gives us the best chance to get back to normal and to grow the sport and to protect everybody's health and safety in doing that," he also declared in a separate statement.

"I give the players and the Players' Association tremendous credit in encouraging players, educating players, making sure they're aware of the benefits of being fully vaccinated and the importance of being fully vaccinated to move the sport forward."

However, despite the vaccination drive Bettman is now faced with the uneasy task of explaining why the league has taken the decision to temporarily shut its doors while others sports leagues like the NFL and NBA remain open for business. 

Both the NHL and NHLPA have heavily suggested that players should get their booster, or third shot of Covid-19 vaccine, but have so far stopped short of mandating that it is required to play. Just one player in the entire league, Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings, remains unvaccinated. 

However, a noticeable uptick in infections has been felt in various sports in the United States, and particularly in the NFL. Eleven hockey teams have suspended operations and all games involving cross-border travelling between the United States and Canada have been shelved.

The Covid disruption to the league is thought to have been enough to compel NHL officials to use its opt-out clause which would prohibit players from competing at next year's Beijing Olympics – with an official statement on the matter expected to arrive in the coming days.

The surge in cases – which many suspect is linked the arrival of the highly transmissible omicron variant of Covid-19 – has already led to NHL bosses implementing a wave of new safety measures.

Daily testing will replace the previous method of testing every three days, while strict social distancing policies have been introduced. Players have also been told that they must restrict their movements when they are at home and away from their teams. 

For now, booster mandates remain off the table - but if Bettman is continue to herald his league's initiative in having its players as immunized as possible, it remains to be seen if, or when, there might be a change of policy.