As training camp will begin for the New Jersey Devils rookies in less than two weeks, the 2021-22 season is getting that much closer. It will be here before we know it. This also meant that some important business needed to be taken care of before it all starts. This evening, National Hockey League and the NHL Player’s Association agreed to new COVID-19 protocols for this coming season. Per this article by Elliotte Friedman at Sportsnet, here are the main pieces of the new protocols:
- A team can suspend an unvaccinated player who cannot participate due to team activities. This includes travel between Canada and the United States as well as inter-country trips. For each day they are suspended, they will forfeit their payment.
- There are exceptions for unvaccinated players: medical reasons, conflict with religious beliefs, being in quarantine as a high-risk close contact for the virus, and getting the virus while playing.
- If a player is vaccinated and gets COVID-19, then they will be treated as if they have a hockey-related injury as per the Contract Bargaining Agreement.
- Players can still opt-out of the 2021-22 season due to a lack of vaccination or if they are vaccination but shares a household with someone with a significant risk of severe illness if they do get COVID-19. They have until October 1 to opt out. The team can either toll the contracted season and have it count for 2022-23, or remove the 2021-22 season from the agreement. If a player opts out, they cannot play in another league or the Olympics.
- All players are still subject to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing. Vaccinated players will be tested at least every 72 hours. Unvaccinated players will be tested daily.
- All personnel who interacts with hockey operations personnel, including players, must be vaccinated.
- There are specific rules for unvaccinated players including who they can be in contact with and where they can and cannot go.
Essentially, these rules are in place to ensure that the NHL can have a full, regular 82-game season across two countries with varying COVID-19 rules that could change within the next few weeks or months for something unforeseen. They are also there to encourage players and team personnel to get vaccinated in case they have not done so. Players who are vaccinated who contract the virus will not be punished and lose out on any money. Players who are not vaccinated will.
The restrictions for the unvaccinated players are particularly strong. Suspensions hurt both the team and the wallet. They will also be unable to participate in activities with other players and other matters that helps build team cohesion. Even if they are not suspended, they are limited in terms of what they can do; they cannot even go out with their teammates. A player who is unwilling to get the shot is going to pay a very heavy cost both literally and figuratively to the team and locker room.
All together, this is not a mandate but it is a very strong set of rules to encourage the players to go get vaccinated if they have not done so yet. I do not know how much the New Jersey Devils are or are not vaccinated. Given that the majority of the 2021 Devils contracted the virus last season (and mostly in January), they may need to consider booster shots earlier than other players and teams. The antibodies formed from contracting the virus do not last forever. With training camp coming up in a few weeks, there is still some time for someone to go out, get it, and deal with any side effects before they have to report. Hopefully, this is a non-issue for the team.
By the way, what I did not see in Friedman’s report is any reference of extra roster players or a taxi squad, which is what the NHL had last season. I am taking that to mean that the league will return to having 23-man rosters and the standard practice of calling players up and down as needed from the AHL affiliate. This would be good for fringe and tweener players such that they are more likely to play somewhere (read: Utica) instead of being on standby for whatever reason. Of course, plans can change and if I am wrong, then so be it.
As far as the state of the New Jersey and the Prudential Center goes, it is all status quo with respect to vaccinations. The state is not requiring them at the moment for attending sporting events. The arena is going to continue to follow the state’s lead. I think that could change as October 15 gets closer - preseason games do not come close to selling out - but we shall see. It is required in MSG and now the United Center in Chicago. I think other American arenas may follow suit as games get closer.