While the NHL, officially at least, is still hoping to start the upcoming season the first week of January, that seems a rather remote possibility for a lot of reasons, as I wrote two weeks ago. Right at the top of that list, COVID-19 doesn’t care what Gary Bettman and hockey fans want.
For all the moving pieces – divisional alignment, determining the length of the season and where and how games will be played for starters – every potential plan depends on a pandemic we clearly don’t control. Yet more proof of that came late Monday with news four members of the Vegas Golden Knights have tested positive for COVID-19. Today, Frank Seravalli of TSN reports a “significant” number of Columbus Blue Jackets have tested positive. It won’t end there.
The Vegas team statement reads: “Four Golden Knights players recently tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Those individual players have been self-isolating and are all recovering well. As a precautionary measure, the Golden Knights’ off-ice player areas (locker room, lounge, gym, training room and video room) will be closed to all players and team staff through the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.”
In themselves, these positive tests in Vegas and Columbus don’t preclude starting a new season the first week of January because the unnamed players involved will be done with self-isolation long before then. That said, what are the odds more than 700 players are going to come out of the Christmas holiday season clean, making a Jan. 1 timeline possible? Slim and none. But as of Nov. 27 via Bovada, the actual odds are -500 for a post-New Year’s Day start, and just +325 for a Jan. 1 puck drop. This heavily supports the argument that we definitely won’t be seeing teams hit the ice by the currently-scheduled start date.
Human nature and Christmas being what it is, it’s not remotely reasonable to expect players to avoid contact with a pandemic that’s been growing exponentially across North America for weeks on end now. Christmas is a period of family gatherings, dinner with friends and every manner of social get-together. We all know about masking, social distancing and all the other measures health professionals have insisted on, but how has that been working?
The answer to that we know. What will the numbers among NHL players look in the 10-14 days following U.S. Thanksgiving, which will serve as a warm-up for Christmas? Likewise, what will the number look like in the 10-14 days after Dec. 25? If the NHL plans on a Jan. 1 start date, camps would have to be well underway by then, no? I don’t see it.
We can hope for the best, which is what we got with the play-ins and playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto, when not a single case was reported, but the social seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas are not anything like those weeks in the bubble both cities pulled off so well. It’s not a question of whether NHL teams are going to see positive tests, only how many. Then what?
Two weeks ago, I listed all the reasons I’d move the targeted start date to the first week of February, so I won’t repeat them here, but even that timeline seems optimistic now. Even moving it back to then, there are no guarantees. Whether you call it COVID fatigue or whatever, the reality is we’ve allowed a second wave to gather momentum. Restrictions are being tightened by the day. There’s a lot more at stake than the start of a hockey season.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Aiming for a February start would at least give the NHL a chance to look at and assess the post-Christmas numbers during the first two weeks of January and, if they’re not raging out of control, hold training camps in preparation for the season. The way things are going now, the reality is even February might be a long shot.
I hope I’m wrong about that, but I fear I’m right. We’re not even to the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend and we’ve got flare-ups in Las Vegas and Columbus with, undoubtedly, more to come before we get to Christmas. We did an admirable job with the NHL operating in a bubble for play-ins and playoffs, but the players don’t live in a bubble. None of us do. There’s your trouble.