After the year we've had, I've tried my best to avoid "doom and gloom" thinking at all costs, as each day has seemingly brought forth a new crisis that shoots bolts of anxiety to every corner of my body. But there comes a point where you can't ignore the facts:
The NHL has a COVID problem. And it's not going away.
In the past 36 hours, 24 NHLers have entered league protocols, including 11 over the past 24 hours: Boston's Craig Smith and Brad Marchand; Calgary's Milan Lucic, Sean Monahan, and Noah Hanafin; New York's Mat Barzal; Carolina's Seth Jarvis, Sebastian Aho; Edmonton's Ryan McLeod; and Vancouver's Luke Schenn and Juho Lammikko.
That brings the total number of players sidelined due to COVID-related issues at 31, with the Flames' situation, in particular, reaching the point on Monday that the league felt forced to postpone their scheduled games through Dec. 16.
The Flames are now the fifth team to have their games postponed for various stretches this season, their's coming a few weeks after the Senators and Islanders were placed under mini-pauses of their own as the virus tore through their respective locker rooms, and on the heels of today's news that the game between Wild and Hurricanes later this evening has been rescheduled after more positive tests.
Needless to say, this is not good. You don't need to be an epidemiologist to see that, of which I am certainly not.
But where is this all going?
The good news here is that the league is nearly 100% vaccinated, with Detroit's Tyler Bertuzzi the lone remaining holdout because he seemingly values Facebook facts over the safety of those around him.
It should go without saying, but the vaccine is good, lessening the toll of the virus on those who have been infected by it and saving lives. Even when a double-vaxxed player has tested positive this season, their symptoms in most cases have reportedly been minor – if they even display them at all. At least, that's what we've been hearing.
"They're not getting sick," said Hurricanes' coach Rod Brind'Amour of his players in quarantine on Tuesday.
"But they have to pay the price for it. It's super frustrating, especially on the road"
The NHL obviously wants to avoid another full-scale shutdown at all costs. The league JUST got back on its feet after the pandemic cut hockey-related revenue in half, halted salary cap growth for a half-decade, and created a massive escrow debt owed to the owners by the players, which makes battening down the hatches look like a worst-case scenario.
What the league is likely hoping for here is to somehow drag itself to the winter break in order to use it as an unofficial pause. The wheels for this have already been set in motion, in fact, with the NHL having issued a memo to all 32 teams a few weeks ago urging players and staff members alike to limit their exposure to large gatherings as much as possible over the upcoming holiday break, and canceling all team-sanctioned holiday parties in the process. And while that doesn't exactly accomplish much in a tangible sense, it at least eliminates one possible spreader event.
But as great as that is, none of it matters until we accept the reality that the Olympic dream is over.
From a logistical, medical, and, frankly, ethical standpoint, halting the season for three weeks in mid-February so the best players in the sport can go overseas where they will then be sequestered alongside athletes from across the globe and could potentially be subject to a three-week quarantine upon testing positive makes zero sense.
The schedule is already condensed as it is, with an All-Star break on the horizon and more postponements almost certainly coming down the pike. At some point, player safety must take precedence over all else.
These are human beings after, all. And not only are they risking daily exposure to a virus that has altered our very way of life for the past two years, but forcing them to cram even more games into an already-tight time period poses a significant threat of injury.
There's only so much one can write off as an occupational hazard. If NHLers are expected to operate under the assumption that COVID-19 infection is a likely part of their job, at least throw them a bone where you can. I think they've earned it.
Opt-out of the Olympics. Extend the winter break by a week to make it a 10-day layoff for players and staff to put even somewhat of a dent into the growing case numbers. And use the extra three weeks that were previously reserved for the Olympics to make up those postponed games, while spacing out the schedule at a time when most teams usually hit a wall.
No one wants a shutdown, You don't, I don't, and Gary Bettman DEFINITELY doesn't.
Right now, the NHL must pull out all the stops to ensure that its product can keep going in a safe manner. Doing so requires sacrifice. And if that entails pushing a few late-December games off the schedule, so be it.
Just stay safe out there, ok?