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Mackenzie Blackwood is Currently Unvaccinated; So What Happens Now?

After today’s scrimmage, it was revealed that New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood is the one unvaccinated player in camp. This post goes over Blackwood’s announcement and offers other thoughts about the issues brought up in reaction to the news.

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New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
Mackenzie Blackwood will still need to wear this mask for the time being.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

This year’s training camp for the New Jersey Devils was without any concern. No modified camp due to the Coronavirus ahead of a shortened 56-game season. No players holding out for new contracts. No significant injuries have been reported. There was to be no real issues. Until the camp began Corey Masisak of The Athletic ($) dropped a bomb on September 24: someone on the team was not vaccinated and it was a “prominent player” - not a prospect, minor league player, or one of the team’s try out players. Speculation became rampant online with many guessing the player to be goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. The unbridled speculation was confirmed today as Blackwood appeared before the media after the final scrimmage before preseason begins tomorrow. He was wearing a mask. Greg Wyshynski of ESPN broke the news and Masisak followed up at The Athletic ($).

The team and the league has not hid from the news. As of this evening, the front page of the Devils’ official website has an article about Blackwood addressing is non-vaccination status. The NHL’s official website has their own article about it here. If anything has been buried, it may be the news that Blackwood had ankle surgery in the offseason. But that is not the big issue. It is the fact that out of all 50 players in the camp, the lone person is Blackwood, someone who suffered significantly from the virus during last season.

Personally, I am disappointed and confused. Disappointed because I would think someone who had it would have few issues about going and getting the shots when available. Confused because I am unsure about some of the statements he made today. For example, as quoted from the article at the Devils’ site:

“I’m not trying to be a distraction to them while I work through it,” Blackwood shared. “I am really lucky to have a great set of teammates that support me no matter what, whether they agree or disagree with me.

Bro, the team literally had no other issues or concerns beyond who would play where. The fact that you are the only one on the camp roster who is not vaccinated and are speaking to it is a distraction of itself. I think it is great that the locker room is supportive and management is taking the track of being respectful. But it would be even greater if you would get it over with so the questions to not persist. And they will persist until it is done.

That stated, this quote as Tweeted here by Wyshysnki and quoted by Masisak in his article, does give me another concern - a wonder of whether there is something more at hand.

“I have a couple of health concerns and health reasons why I’m working through it a little slower. I wanted to check off a couple of boxes, and not rush to do it.”

Masisak’s initial article about the unvaccinated player included the statement that the player - who we now know is Blackwood - was on board with getting the vaccination shot but then changed his mind. This quote by Blackwood does not strike me as someone who is stubborn or fully convinced that the shot itself is a problem. I wonder if there is another complication that he would know. That stated, if there was, he could have just said something to the effect that medical professionals recommended against getting the vaccination for X or Y reason. The NHL does allow for exemptions.

Then again, if he was on board with getting the shot before changing his mind, then that implies he would not have a complication that would prevent him from getting the vaccination. Further, Blackwood’s season was done in May along with the rest of the team. Vaccinations have become very available in New Jersey since then and I am not sure how much more time he needs to check off boxes, or whatever that means. Then again, the people in the organization may have this information Blackwood is alluding too and therefore are taking a kinder approach than, say, what Columbus and the Islanders did to Zac Rinaldo (demoted to the AHL ahead of camp) and Bode Wilde (loaned to Sweden) respectively.

So the cat is out of proverbial bag. I will now use this space for my thoughts to address some frequently brought up points online:

What will Blackwood not getting the shot mean for playing with the team? As of now, to cross the border into Canada and play, a player must be vaccinated at least two weeks prior to travel. The Devils have nine games in Canada this season. If Blackwood is not vaccinated, then he will not be able to play in those games. He could be suspended without pay as per the NHL’s and NHLPA’s COVID-19 protocols for this season.

There are no restrictions for playing in America. While the home arena or team may mandate a vaccination, it will not apply to visiting players. So he can play in MSG, in Philly, in Los Angeles, wherever in America.

One thing of note is that Canada has allowed NBA and MLB players to cross the border without this requirement. However, keep in mind that there are fewer teams in Canada in those leagues compared to the NHL. The NHL may not request a change given their strict protocols; they likely would have done it by now if they could. I would not expect a change to happen on that front.

Is it OK that Blackwood misses the games in Canada because it is not like he is going to play 70+ games like Martin Brodeur? No, not really. Most of these road games in Canada are in the second half of the schedule. There is a short trip to Montreal and Toronto that wraps around the weekend of January 15. There’s the annual trip through Western Canada, which has a back-to-back with Vancouver and Calgary on March 13 and 14. March 23 has a game in Toronto the night after a home game against Our Hated Rivals. There are two games in Ottawa in April. The Devils may need results in those games for any potential playoff push or even just to salvage the second half of the season. Leaning on Jonathan Bernier or Scott Wedgewood to do it instead is not ideal. Further, that assumes those two will be available. For the sake of roster flexibility and putting the best 18 men on the game’s roster, Blackwood should to be available. The 2021-22 Devils are not in a position like Detroit, where they are so deep in their re-build that it is moot as to whether Tyler Bertuzzi misses games. They should be aiming higher than that. If management sees Blackwood as part of that - and they do - then Blackwood needs to make himself available as needed. This means he needs to get vaccinated.

When will Blackwood need to get the shot by so he does not miss games in Canada? The Devils’ first game in Canada this season is at Winnipeg on December 3. They will be in Minnesota the night before, so the team will already in travel mode already. With the two week requirement, the latest Blackwood can get his vaccination would be November 19 to allow for the two weeks to pass. Basically, if Blackwood gets the shot by then, then there is no issue with him traveling to Canada. The issue becomes a thing of the past.

There may be some logistical issues with the 19th. The Devils are on the road on November 18 and 20 as they will play Florida and Tampa Bay, respectively. This may mean the latest day may have to be before that. The Devils are off on the 17th, but they may choose to travel to the Sunshine State then ahead of those two games. The Devils host Ottawa on the 16th, so it may actually, truly be November 15 or 16. Then again, I do not see why being on the road would preclude Blackwood from getting the vaccine. I am sure the Devils can make that happen if it comes to that.

UPDATE: MedicSBK raised a good point from the comments. This above is true if Blackwood gets the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. If he opts for the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, then Blackwood has to get it much earlier to allow for the time between the two shots. As in mid-October. As in not long after the season begins.

Of course, Blackwood can get the shots well before then so no one has to look ahead to mid-November’s schedule now.

Is Blackwood being tested? What about the other Devils? Yes and yes. Per the NHL’s and NHLPA’s protocols for this season, unvaccinated players are tested daily and vaccinated players are tested every 72 hours.

Is the Devils’ approach the right one, to be receptive to him about it? I think so. I do not think shaming or intimidating someone to get a vaccine shot is going to actually work. I think the NHL’s and NHLPA’s protocols being as strict as it is about suspensions and restrictions on interacting with teammates really did the trick. After all, it is only one Devil and a handful of other players without the shot currently.

Granted, it is also preseason and there are no stakes in any of the games, so it is easy for everyone to be supportive of the player and not his decision. This may change in time. Once the Devils have to travel for games and other aspects of the protocol are enforced to handle the team off the ice, then the locker room may grow tired of Blackwood’s lack of vaccination. Once the Devils have to go to Canada and if Blackwood cannot play, the coaches and management may be more annoyed with it too.

Can the Devils trade Blackwood? Sure. I mean, this is hockey. Wayne Gretzky got traded. Anyone can be traded. Would anyone want a currently unvaccinated Blackwood? Would any return be worth it? I would guess the answer to both of those is ‘no.’

Can Blackwood be left off of Team Canada if he is unvaccinated? Yes. The Olympics are expected to require all players to be vaccinated to participate in next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Can Blackwood be suspended outside of games? Possibly. If team activities require all involved to be vaccinated or the protocols to keep him from others due to his unvaccinated status, then he could be suspended without pay for being unable to participate. That stated, I do not believe a team can enact this suspension without cause so they cannot just suspend Blackwood until he changes mind either. And if a team does try that, I would think the NHLPA would have a problem with it.

Can Blackwood be cut for this? No. Blackwood is signed for this season and next. A contract cannot be voided. He’s a Devil.

What is the nightmare scenario because I want to imagine the worst? The Sun explodes.

Somewhat more seriously, Blackwood can choose to opt out for this season. He (and anyone else in the NHL) has to do this by October 1. If he does, then the Devils would have 30 days to toll the contract to the following season - meaning Blackwood is signed for 2022-23 and 2023-24 instead of ending after the 2022-23 season - or remove this season from his contract. Which would mean Blackwood is a Devil. If Blackwood opts out, then he cannot play anywhere. No Olympics. No pro league in Europe. No minor pro league in North America. No playing at all.

I really do not think this would happen so I would not worry about it.

So what happens now? Blackwood and the Devils follow the league’s and union’s agreed-upon protocols. Expect Blackwood to get some preseason action. Expect him to start the season on October 15. Expect him to be the ‘1A’ goalie with Jonathan Bernier just like most of us did after Bernier was signed back in July. To quote a former legend of this organization: Status quo.

It will not be status quo behind the scenes. I would hope the Devils - management and teammates - will try to convince Blackwood to get vaccinated. The sooner, the better.

When November starts, then it would be more appropriate to circle back and start getting concerned about Blackwood if he is still unvaccinated by then.

I want to bother Mackenzie Blackwood to get the shot. How can I do that? Please do not do this. One, it will almost definitely will not work. Two, no one is asking you to do so. Three, it is wrong to bother people to get them to do what you want.

I want to bother Devils fans because Blackwood didn’t get the shot and some of them disagree with me. Can I do that instead? No. Do not be a pain to the other People Who Matter. Just because you may be in the right does not give you the right to be a jerk about it.

I want to argue as to whether this vaccination is really needed and... No. No, no, no, no, no. Do not do this either. I don’t believe giving spaces for likely non-experts to argue with likely non-experts about something only tangentially related to the issue at hand. This is the main issue: The NHL’s and NHLPA’s protocols have made it clear: get vaccinated or risk getting suspended without pay and unable to play/help your team, or other forms of punishment by your team. Blackwood has decided to take the risk. Now it is an issue for himself and the Devils and they will have to manage it. That is the choice at hand. Not whether the shots are good, bad, mediocre, needed, not needed, whatever. So stop arguing about that in the comments; it is irrelevant.

The organization Blackwood works for - the NHL - and the union he belongs to - the NHLPA - has made the choice crystal clear for Blackwood and others. Get the shot or risk suspension without pay.

You dissed “unbridled speculation” when it turned out to be right. Where’s my apology? No.

What is the simplest solution here? It is easy. Blackwood changes his mind and gets the dang shot as soon as possible!

Then this is all water under the bridge. The distraction goes away. Concerns for the future - this season, his standing among the organization and locker room - will fade away. The only remnants from it will be from people who do not want to let go of this for one reason or another. Such as the haters and losers, of which there are sadly many.

A part of me is a little hopeful that now this is fully public, Blackwood may be more receptive to getting it. But that may be me choosing optimism over pessimism. It is not up to me, you, or anyone except Blackwood.

Can I leave a comment about this? Sure. Please do so, but be nice to each other about it. If people cannot behave and have a civil exchange about it, then it will not be.

What if it is about hockey? We have a lot of other posts about that. I would highly recommend the commenters stick to Blackwood and his lack of vaccination here.