As COVID-19 cases spike around NHL, healthy Blackhawks hope to avoid outbreak

The Hawks haven’t had anyone on the COVID list since Nov. 10, but they’ll still be expected to follow the stricter new policies the league enacted Wednesday in response to outbreaks on numerous other teams.

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The Blackhawks have no COVID cases as of Wednesday afternoon.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Blackhawks held a team meeting Tuesday to re-emphasize precautions against COVID-19.

“We reminded them [about] making sure we’re distancing, try to stay away from large crowds, wash your hands,” interim coach Derek King said. “[We] just really knuckled down because we don’t want to be one of those teams that’s got to rearrange schedules because we have COVID.”

By Wednesday, the content of their meeting was already somewhat out of date.

The NHL sent updated COVID policies to its 32 teams, and while the policies reportedly don’t quite compare to last season’s near-lockdown-level rules, they are significantly stricter than those the league had enforced up to this point this season.

Players will have indoor dining restrictions, mandatory masking and distancing within team facilities and daily testing except on days off, among other new measures, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported. The league is also recommending players receive vaccination booster shots.

The stricter policies arrive as the NHL endures by far its largest COVID outbreak of the season — an outbreak larger than many assumed possible in a league with only one total unvaccinated player. The new omicron variant has been found among the league’s positive tests.

The Flames’ decision to postpone their scheduled Monday game against the Hawks has proven prudent. They added a whopping 17 new people (seven players, three coaches and seven staffers) to the COVID protocol list Wednesday and now have 16 players — the majority of the roster — on the list.

“You don’t want to see some of these players and teams go through [this], all of sudden, [like] Calgary [has],” King said.

Also on the COVID list around the league, as of Wednesday afternoon, are six Hurricanes players, six Predators players, five Panthers players, four Canucks players, the Bruins’ two biggest stars — Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron — and plenty of others.

But the Hawks, for now, remain free of COVID.

After dealing with a decent-sized outbreak in late October and early November — Patrick Kane, Henrik Borgstrom, Jujhar Khaira, Riley Stillman, Tyler Johnson, Isaak Phillips and three assistant coaches all missed time around then — they haven’t had anyone on the COVID list since Johnson and Phillips were removed Nov. 10.

King and some other staff members and players have already received their booster shots, too, while others — such as Calvin de Haan — haven’t yet but plan to “at some point, for sure.”

“Our team has been — knock on wood — not too bad with COVID this year, and we’ve been doing the same thing all year,” Dylan Strome said. “Obviously the outbreaks are happening everywhere, so [we must] just stay safe and do what you have to do to not catch the virus. Wearing masks is a big one, and washing your hands.”

The Capitals were without two players — Evgeny Kuznetsov and Garnet Hathaway — and three staff members due to COVID protocols for Wednesday’s game, but it was played as scheduled.

The Hawks’ scheduled game Friday against the Predators, however, already appears in jeopardy

The Predators’ outbreak has grown to not only six players but also six other employees, including coach John Hynes. They’re scheduled to face the Avalanche on Thursday, and have made the necessary transactions to field a roster for that game, but any more positive tests would likely shut them down.

The NHL’s new, stricter COVID policies will run at least through Jan. 7, but could be extended depending on what happens in the coming weeks. Three days later, on Jan. 10, comes the deadline to withdraw from Olympic participation without financial penalty. There’s a real possibility now that the NHL might do so.

The league didn’t take any action regarding fan attendance, but governments have. Maple Leafs and Senators games will be restricted to 50% fan capacity starting Saturday by Ontario officials.

And long-term, the league will need to start determining how it plans to handle future outbreaks, given the now-recurring pattern of variant strains intermittently overtaking the league in spite of its near-100% vaccination rate.

No NHL players who have contracted COVID earlier this season have reported significant health impacts, and many have been asymptomatic. As a result, some have called for testing to be limited to players showing symptoms. The league isn’t expected to adopt that exact approach anytime soon, but it could explore alternatives.

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