With COVID-19 problems cropping up and four teams currently idled, the NHL has revised its virus protocols in a bid to keep the shortened season on track.
Glass panels have been removed from behind benches for better air flow, players and coaches are not allowed at the arena until 1 hour and 45 minutes before the game unless they’re getting treatment for injuries and all meetings must be virtual.
“Every day things change, and you just go with the flow,” 66-year-old Dallas coach Rick Bowness said. “If there’s no glass behind the bench, there’s no fans back there, so it’s not going to affect anything. It shouldn’t at all.”
The 31 teams were also told to space out locker rooms more to provide 6 feet of space between people. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the updates Thursday in an email to The Associated Press.
The league is not yet considering adding a daily rapid test to go along with PCR testing, like the NBA did. PCR tests are considered to be more accurate, but there’s a 12-24 hour turnaround on results.
The moves were made as the NHL sees some concerning trends, including 40 players on the COVID-19 unavailable list.
In the first three weeks of the season, approximately 90 players have appeared on the list, which can include a positive test result unconfirmed or confirmed, symptomatic isolation, high risk close contact or quarantine for travel purposes.
Vegas, New Jersey, Buffalo and Minnesota are currently paused with at least one player on the list. The Wild added five new players to the list Wednesday and the Sabres said Thursday that 61-year-old coach Ralph Krueger had tested positive and will enter virus protocol immediately. Vegas had three coaches in the protocol last week.
“The way I’m looking at it is it’s hard to avoid anywhere,” said Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour, whose team has had four games postponed because of an outbreak. “We’re doing the best we can.”
So far, 22 games have been postponed affecting 16 of the league’s 24 U.S.-based teams. Only one of the 40 players currently on the COVID list is from a Canadian team, and that is because Pierre-Luc Dubois is in quarantine after a trade from Columbus to Winnipeg.
The Jets’ union representative, Andrew Copp, said he understands some of the changes but is particularly unhappy with later arrivals on game day, which he believes will be challenged in the name of preventing injuries.
“It’s getting your mind right, it’s getting your body right to put out the best possible product for the fans and trying to lower injury as much as possible,” Copp said. “This is pretty much the only place we’re allowed to come. … I don’t see what the difference is between a 5:15 and 4:15 entrance for guys.”
After completing last season in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, the NHL planned for 2021 outside a bubble with 12 different protocol documents spanning 213 pages. The rules call for masks everywhere at team facilities, including locker rooms, and coaches and backup goaltenders wearing them on the bench. Teams were also shuffled into four divisions and are playing only division foes to limit travel.
Being on the road at all may be the biggest concern.
“Because you are going in and out of hotel lobbies and elevators with other people around, it’s impossible to feel as safe,” Bowness said. “You’ve got strangers on the elevator. In Carolina the other day when we were getting on to an elevator, a couple got off and the woman did not have a mask on, so we don’t know, was she coughing in the elevator? Was she sneezing? Who knows?”
Players, coaches and staff are also limited to the hotel and rink on the road.
“I think the protocols are appropriate,” Philadelphia general manager Chuck Fletcher said Tuesday. “These are difficult times. Look, you can do everything right and still contract COVID. I think we’re all trying to be careful. I think the players recognize how fortunate we are to be back playing, playing games, competing for a Stanley Cup and earning a paycheck.”
AP Sports Writers Dan Gelston and Aaron Beard contributed.