Sporting a mask, Toronto Maple Leafs winger William Nylander opened his news conference at the start of training camp by informing reporters he was not yet fully vaccinated.
“Had couple medical things to take care of,” he said. “I’ll be fully vaccinated by the beginning of the season.”
The NHL is counting on it and said last week that 98% of its players will be vaccinnated by the time the season begins Oct. 12. That would leave 10-15 players out of 700 on 32 teams lacking the vaccine, including Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi.
“Just personal choice, freedom of choice,” Bertuzzi said. “It was a life decision.”
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association haven’t mandated vaccines for players with training camps starting this week, but there’s little doubt tough restrictions — including not being able to cross the border from the U.S. into Canada without a two-week quarantine — provided an incentive for many on the fence.
“The league’s trying to operate as safe as possible and trying to encourage the safest possible environment,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. “But it’s anyone’s choice to determine what they feel is best for them ... I think you can make an argument on both sides.”
Vaccinated players who test positive for COVID-19 will be treated as having hockey injuries and still get paid, while their unvaccinated counterparts are set to have their movements restricted on the road. Clubs will have the right to suspend unvaccinated players without pay if they’re unable to participate in hockey activities as part of coronavirus protocols, including games in Canada.
Regular testing for the coronavirus will continue for vaccinated players.
Canucks forward Jason Dickinson said the decision to get the vaccine was an easy one.
“The vaccine works — it works,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that want to argue it. And I guess that’s their right, but there’s a lot of people that are losing their rights right now by having to wait (the unvaccinated) out. It’s slowing down everybody else’s life.”
Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, whose team is fully vaccinated, said he felt pressured into getting the shot.
“I’m not anti-vaxx by any means, but I’d like to have that decision for myself,” he said. “I had just gotten COVID and gotten over it, and then I had to get the (vaccine), which made me feel like I had COVID all over again. ... I would have liked (the NHLPA) to have helped us a little more.”
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said one player in camp didn’t get vaccinated: Joel L’Esperance, “for personal and family reasons.
“We fully support his personal decision. And Joel knows the ramifications also of that decision, due to protocol, travel, everything else,” Nill said.
The 26-year-old L’Esperance said he and his wife were not comfortable with vaccination.
“Not anti-vax, it’s just something that as a family we decided that we’re a little uncomfortable with some of the potential things that could happen with the vaccine at this point,” he said. “(I)t’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to make in my life. I mean, it’s my dream to play in the NHL, and obviously there’s consequences to me not getting the vaccine and it’s going to affect my career. But right now, my family is more important than in my career.”
NHL coaches and staff are required by the league to be vaccinated, which cost Columbus assistant Sylvain Lefebvre his job after he declined to adhere to the policy.
“You’re teetering the line between your own personal choice and what we want to do, and then how it affects others,” Edmonton winger Zach Hyman said when asked about the the NHL policy. “If someone doesn’t feel comfortable getting vaccinated, then that’s his right and I guess he’ll have to abide by the rules of the league.”
Edmonton winger Josh Archibald is also unvaccinated, which GM Ken Holland said could see him sit out up to 30 games in the U.S. because of the quarantine required upon returning to Canada.
The Canucks suffered through a devastating COVID-19 outbreak last season, and will be fully vaccinated in 2021-22.
“A lot of these guys have young kids and they all ended up getting sick,” Vancouver GM Jim Benning said. “As a group, they knew the importance of getting vaccinated to give ourselves the best chance to get back to normal.”
Dickinson was asked about playing against an opponent or having a teammate who had not been vaccinnated and he said he was not worried.
“I’ve had it. I had a very mild case. That doesn’t mean that if I get it again, it’s going to be mild again,” he said. “But it’s the elderly. It’s the weak. It’s the the people that are susceptible to these viruses that I worry about because I can still be a carrier and bring it back to them.”
He also said a vaccinated league is the quickest way back to some semblance of normal.
“We want to play games,” Dickinson said. “We want fans in the building. We want to get back to life.”