Blackhawks thankful but careful as NHL’s COVID-19 rate rapidly improves

Only four players were listed on the NHL’s COVID-19 list Wednesday, down from a peak of 59 on Feb. 12. The Hawks peaked at five players out but have been at zero since Feb. 13.

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Coach Jeremy Colliton wears a mask on the bench of the Blackhawks game Sunday.

AP Photos

The NHL’s COVID-19 list on Wednesday included only four players.

That number would’ve been difficult to fathom on Feb. 12, when the COVID-19 list reached a peak of 59.

That precipitous decline since is simultaneously a testament to players taking the situation seriously and wholeheartedly committing to safe practices, to the NHL’s smart on-the-fly policy changes and to the swiftly declining —although not quite that swiftly — coronavirus rates in society at large.

And for the Blackhawks, who peaked with five players on the list from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 but haven’t had anyone on it since Feb. 13, it arrives as welcome news.

“For sure, it’s nice to hear that things are getting better,” Dominik Kubalik said Wednesday. “We’re doing everything to follow the protocols and do all the things that should make us safe. So I’m really happy about that, and hopefully it’s going to keepgetting better and better.”

The Hawks had three players —Adam Boqvist, Lucas Wallmark and Ryan Carpenter —test positive during their outbreak, with two others —Alex DeBrincat and Nicolas Beaudin — temporarily listed due to contract tracing.

Boqvist, Wallmark and Carpenter all reported losses of smell and taste but otherwise mild, short-lived symptoms and have all since returned to the lineup unaffected.

The Hawks hope they can escape this tumultuous 2021 season without any more cases. Coach Jeremy Colliton said he views the league-wide improvement as a more than a coincidence.

“The numbers across the country are better than they were,” Colliton said. “And getting in the rhythm for the players [has helped]. We’re busy, we’re at the rink and then you’re home. When you’re on that schedule, hopefully you’re not being exposed to the opportunity to bring the virus in.”

The NHL hovered around 20-25 players on the list from Jan. 13 opening night until Jan. 30 — although that number didn’t include the Dallas Stars, who had 17 players test positive in training camp, until Jan. 22.

The rate began rapidly increasing on Jan. 31, however, and continued to rise sharply until the aforementioned Feb. 12 peak.

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The number of players on the COVID-19 list rapidly rose between Jan. 31 and Feb. 12, but has rapidly fallen since.

Sun-Times graphic

The Hurricanes, Golden Knights, Devils, Sabres, Avalanche, Blues, Wild, Flyers and aforementioned Hawks and Stars all experienced significant outbreaks at different points in time.

The NHL was forced to react, postponing games and implementing a new, stricter policies —like removing the glass behind the benches to improve airflow, and moving lockers six feet apart —on Feb. 4.

Eighteen games have been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns so far, and although only one of those (Sharks-Golden Knights on Feb. 25) occurred more recently than Feb. 15, the havoc wrecked on the schedule as a result will continue to be felt through May.

Teams have also lost 278 man-games so far due to players out on the COVID-19 list for games that happened nonetheless.

“Alot of teams have struggled with the schedule,” Mattias Janmark said Wednesday. “It’s probably been more than everyone expected.”

The past few weeks have proven markedly more stable, allowing the NHL’s players, fans and executives to focus more on hockey.

As of Wednesday, only Boston’s Charlie Coyle, Nashville’s Ryan Johansen, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and San Jose’s Tomas Hertl sat on the COVID-19 list out of the roughly 700 players on the 31 teams’ active rosters.

But Colliton emphasized the encouraging data shouldn’t entice his team to relax its safe behavior.

“We know that this season is one of uncertainty and we’re going to have to be extremely diligent with the decisions we make,” he said. “It would be a mistake to get too comfortable and feel like everything’s behind us. That’s a tempting thing. But ultimately, we still have to do the right things here and put ourselves in a position to be healthy and win hockey games and hopefully keep the schedule we have.”

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