There was a time not long ago when the North Division could look down its nose and over the 49th parallel at the rest of the NHL, secure in the knowledge that it had managed to keep COVID-19 at bay and was playing without interruption. But now it might be the division that is most in disarray because of the virus.
With reports that the Vancouver Canucks could have as many as eight players and one member of the coaching staff sidelined with positive tests, not only has their season been thrown into flux, but the rest of the division and the league faces uncertainty. First, it was the Montreal Canadiens having to pause their schedule. Then with Canucks games postponed until April 8, and likely longer, it’s looking more an more like there will have to be some difficult decisions made if the league wants to get the season completed by mid-May. The league had originally wanted to have each team play its 56-game schedules by May 8, a deadline that has already been extended by three days. As of now, the league wants to start the post-season by May 12, but with the Canucks sidelined for who knows how long, the league is faced with either extending the regular season further or basing the standings on points percentage.
All of this, of course, takes a very, very distant backseat to the health and welfare of the people who are on the COVID list. One of them is Canucks defenseman Travis Hamonic, who opted out of the playoffs in the bubble last summer as a member of the Calgary Flames, due mainly to the fact that his daughter, Charlie, had suffered a serious respiratory illness when she was eight months old in January, 2019. “I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot, and helping the team win,” Hamonic wrote in a statement. “But my family has and always will come first. Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have.”
The other is winger Adam Gaudette, who was pulled off the ice earlier in the week when his test results came back positive. Through her Twitter account, Gaudette’s wife, Micaela, said her husband, “isn’t in great shape.” She also said they have both followed all the protocols and stayed home and have no idea how they contract the virus.
It serves as a stark reminder to other teams on both sides of the border as to just how vigilant they have to be. “We’re just fresh off the Montreal situation and that was the one that was the big reminder for everyone,” said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “It think we have done a good job as an organization. The buy-in from our players has been very strong. We’ve got to be smart about it. You feel bad for people who are doing the right thing, but this thing is nasty and it’s finding its way in. We’ve got to stay smart with it and do our part, both in the facility, and more importantly when we leave the facility.”
The Edmonton Oilers have not had to shut down because of COVID, but they have been one of the teams most affected by it. Because of the Canadiens shutdown, a three-game road trip that stretched out into 10 days, during most of which the Oilers were confined to their hotel rooms before finishing the trip with three games in four days. Oilers winger Jujhar Khaira said it’s incumbent on the Oilers to, “roll with the punches,” but said the uncertainty makes it important to be careful. “It highlights how mindful we have to be away from the rink,” he said.
As the NHL limps through this season, it has so far done a terrific job of keeping the product on the ice under incredibly difficult circumstances. It will continue to do so, but as numbers continue to rise and variants make their way into the population, how it’s going to look and when it’s going to end are anyone’s guess.