Friday, Jan. 8, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Bubble hockey is over, and the Golden Knights are looking at a hockey season in the real world.
The NHL and the players’ association pulled off the remarkable feat last summer of holding a 24-team postseason tournament during a pandemic without one positive test for COVID-19. That was in a “bubble,” where players went to and from the rink and hotel, and virtually nowhere else.
The pandemic is still raging, and the puck drops on the season in less than a week. This time the games will take place in home arenas with all the associated travel and the high probability that the coronavirus will impact the season.
“It’s going to be impossible for it not to run across our path at some point,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “And then it’s how we deal with it.”
MLB was the first American-based league to experiment with sports outside of a bubble, and the league almost didn’t make it. Teams were routinely shutting down facilities and canceling games as positive tests showed up nearly every day early in the year.
Ditto for the NFL. Though the regular season went by without a canceled game, postponements and rescheduled contests were a nightmare for some teams logistically. Just this week, the Cleveland Browns had to shut down their facility after their head coach tested positive ahead of this weekend’s playoff game.
The NBA started its season late last month, and some teams didn’t make it one game without a postponement: The Rockets and Thunder did not play their Dec. 23 game as scheduled.
But for better or worse, games go on. MLB finished its season in October and the NFL begins its playoffs this week. The NBA is still in the early stages and will be watched carefully and parallel with the NHL as the latter begins its 56-game slate on Wednesday (the Golden Knights open on Thursday).
“We have to learn from the NFL and the NBA and the teams that have done this outside the bubble already, from some of the lessons that they’ve learned the hard way and make sure that we don’t fall into that trap,” DeBoer said.
The NHL and players’ association have strict protocols on what players can and can’t do when they’re at team facilities. Face coverings must be worn when players are not actively working out. Saunas and steam rooms are prohibited this year. Coaches must wear masks on the bench during games. Team owners cannot have face-to-face meetings with players.
Players will be tested for COVID-19 daily throughout training camp and through the first four weeks of the regular season, at which point the league will assess if it can move to testing every other day.
That’s all at the rink though. Players have a great deal of freedom when they’re at home, a change from the bubble when they were restricted to the hotel. Players believe it’s on them to make sure the coronavirus doesn’t make its way to the dressing room.
“Especially this time of year, you can’t be cautious enough,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “With this virus going around, you don’t know where you can get it from.”
Theodore stressed the importance of staying home and ordering food delivery instead of going out to eat. In the bubble all team meals were either monitored or came from what was deemed a safe location. Now, there’s nothing to stop a player from going out to the Strip and getting a bite to eat.
“It’s all about everyone taking responsibility off the ice,” forward William Karlsson said. “I think it’s as simple as that. Try to avoid being out as much as possible and that way protect yourself and protect the others on your team.”
It seems unlikely, impossible even, that the NHL season will be spared from the virus. The league and the players’ association is doing everything they can to make sure that if and when the virus does come, its impact on the sport is minimal.
That will require following the safety protocols put in place. But perhaps even more so, it’s about players and staff staying safe outside those protocols too.
“There’s going to be challenges, things we haven’t had in the past,” forward Reilly Smith said. “We just have to be diligent and smart with what we’re doing away from the rink. I think that’s going to be a huge theme for every team this year.”