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Player Safety Has to Come First in the NHL Right Now

The next few days should help provide clarity as to the right direction for the NHL and the Beijing Games in regards to COVID-19. But it doesn’t look promising – and none of us have the right to get all huffy because we’re spoiled hockey fans.
NHL COVID-19

As we get closer to Christmas, the NHL is having another serious run-in with the COVID-19 virus.

And this new strain of the virus is probably going to result in NHL players choosing not to participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. But don’t place any blame on the players for this. For some two years now, they’ve been asked to accept extreme measures to continue their livelihoods, and now they could have to do the same thing for the next six months. Being isolated from family members has been tough enough; asking them to endure the mental and physical anguish for another year just seems cruel.

Who is at fault for this extended bout of COVID-19? Our leaders, not our players. Our players are entertainers when it all comes down to it. Yes, they make a lot of money, but that shouldn’t mean governments can use them like puppets to keep the masses from going stir-crazy. Players (and coaches, and staff, and everyone who works at an NHL arena) have already done a lot for the good of the product. Now the product has to be good to them.

It doesn’t matter that Olympics participation would help to grow the game globally. The Chinese government wants best-on-best hockey, but they’re going to have to settle for the second-best-on-second-best. Now, if they come up with some protocols that ease the minds of NHLers, there’s still an outside chance we can get that best-on-best. But given how quickly the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is sweeping around the world, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which any government could assure NHLers they’ll be 100 percent safe.

The NHL has a Department of Player Safety, and under that banner, you’d think there was a way the league/team owners could justify barring players from attending the Beijing Games. However, league commissioner Gary Bettman has said publicly the NHL Players’ Association made it clear players wanted to play on a global stage like the Olympics. But that agreement was made well before this worldwide nightmare began. Things are different now. And we should be doing everything in our power to ensure all Olympic athletes are safe.

Hockey gods forbid any player contracts COVID-19 and winds up passing away from the virus. Can you imagine the outcry that would happen? No one life is more valuable than any other, but many people have not been personally affected by this virus; if they recognize a famous person who has succumbed to COVID-19, they may be more willing to get vaccinated and follow direction from public health officials.

Certainly, that’s a worst-case scenario for the NHL and team owners. But this is what the NHL Players’ Association is here for; NHLPA head Donald Fehr should and more than likely will be advising players to steer clear of a momentarily (hopefully) toxic workplace, and nobody will fault them for doing so.

Again, there’s blame to go around here, but none of it should be directed at the league or its players. Both have high stakes to worry about, and Olympic participation may only wind up hurting players and derailing any hope of having a complete regular season and Stanley Cup playoff tournament.

No, the blame for this falls squarely on state and provincial politicians who have not properly handled this international emergency. The NHL and professional hockey are but two of many victims of this ongoing tragedy. We’re all in this pandemic together, and no high-salaried athlete can pay for guaranteed protection from COVID-19. This is a fluid situation now.

By now, we should all have been getting excited at the prospect of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and a slew of other NHL top talents representing their respective countries. The fact we’re now so skeptical it can happen is an indictment of our public officials, and one that will leave lasting bitterness even once we decide to all work together for the same cause.

It didn’t have to be this way. We could’ve been smarter and more judicious than we’ve been. There are real-world consequences for our actions, and the probable loss of players from the Olympics is hardly the most serious issue to address. This is uncharted territory for everyone. But the players have to do what’s best for them – really, they need to do what’s best for their physical survival – and none of us have any justification for criticizing them if they choose to stay home.

Entertainment is great when it can be provided. But we should not be demanding it when performers’ lives are jeopardized. If we claim to be fans of NHLers, we should understand when they do something to protect themselves from an airborne monster that doesn’t care whether you’re rich and famous, or just playing around on an ice rink in some random city.

We’re at the breaking point now, and the next few days should help provide clarity as to the right direction for the NHL and the Beijing Games. But it doesn’t look promising – and none of us have the right to get all huffy because we’re spoiled hockey fans. We’re better than that, and understanding where our athletes are coming from is what we owe players for all the years of fun.

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