The Attack Zone

  • John Platzer

Pandemic Protocol Prevents Play

The Buffalo Sabres played 10 games this season before the postponement of a 4 game road trip which followed a 2 game back-to-back homestand ending on January 31st. Currently, the Sabres next game is scheduled for February 15th at home against the New York Islanders. Half a month with no hockey! What happened?

The quick answer is that the pandemic happened. That's not good enough though, is it. The NHL decided to move forward with the season only after setting up some very stringent guidelines and protocols that must be followed. If they were followed, how did this occur? If they weren't followed, who's to blame?

From Buffalo's side of things, everything appeared to be going fine until the clash with New Jersey. There were infected Devils players on the ice but it might not have been their fault. Just two weeks into the season, reports of outbreaks on several teams began circulating.

In the week that followed, certain Sabres players and their head coach were suspended from play. They'd have to clear NHL Covid Protocols in order to return. It gets a bit complicated but ultimately, clearing the NHL's Covid Protocol requires 2 negative test results in a 48 hour period.

On the Sabres there are currently 9 players and still the coach in protocols. Some have covid-19 and some are suspected of being in close contact with someone who has covid-19 which is determined through contact tracing.

Each club is responsible for designating someone as a Club Contact Tracing Officer. This is an actual job title. This person conducts interviews with every player every day and asks them questions about everything they did that day. Where they went, who they saw, who they spoke with, etc... Valuable prep for the yet unbetrothed players.

The team does not release which players have it and which players don't. As fans, of course we'd like to know but the Hipaa laws (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prevent the team from releasing medical data for anyone in their employ. The latest Sabre, as of a few hours ago, to be put into the protocol is defensemen Rasmus Dahlin. Here's a list of the other 8 players:

  • Taylor Hall

  • Tobias Rieder

  • Casey Mittelstadt

  • Brandon Montour

  • Rasmus Ristolainen

  • Jake McCabe

  • Curtis Lazar

  • Dylan Cozens

With 9 players and head coach Ralph Krueger still in protocol, and new players being added to the list every day, Buffalo's schedule continues to be pushed back. Originally, the Sabres season was postponed until Tuesday, February 9th. Within a week of that date being set, it has been moved 6 more days into the future.

If this trend continues, perhaps the NHL can replace the waning fanfare of the outdoor Winter Classic game played each year on New Year's Day with the indoor Summer On Ice game played annually on Independence Day.

Or, they could just cancel the season. Buffalo is not the only team with this issue. Covid is causing postponements for every franchise. Some may compare the NHL with the NFL on this particular issue, using it as an example of how poorly the NHL is managed. The NHL has less players and staff to coordinate yet it still can't keep things as wired tight as the NFL.

The counter to that is football is played once a week. If a player was tagged in contact tracing, he often had time to clear protocols. And, while some players did have to sit out a game, that essentially makes it 2 weeks before their next game. Plenty of time to clear protocols even if they had the virus. In the NHL, 8 or so games are crammed into a two week schedule and Covid becomes a season staller.

Therein lies the issue. The NHL greatly wanted hockey back, and so did avid fans such as yours truly, but the inherent nature of scheduling multiple games per week, which was increased from an average of 3 to 4 for the shortened season, is the root cause of all these postponements.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (L), NHLPA President Gary Fehr (R)

So who's at fault? Who should Twitter hate, the player or the game?

More importantly though, what should the NHL do with regards to extending the season? What factors demark cancellation of the season? In other words, how much worse does it have to get?

There are no answers, only more questions, The NHL overlords are flying by the seat of their pants. They didn't make any definitive rules about a season shutdown. They cannot tell us what things would need to look like for such an event to occur.

While they do address the situation in their covid protocol manifesto, its very convoluted. It comes down to how the NHL and the NHLPA feel about it. With no hard limits set, things will have to get pretty darn awful before someone has the grit to make that call. The NHL needed to have better vision on season ending issues. Feelings should not be the determining factor.

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