As NHL plans to cease asymptomatic testing, Blackhawks’ COVID-19 issues subside
Only three players — Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome and Brett Connolly — and no staff members are left on the Hawks’ COVID list, and all three might be eligible to return by Friday.
The Blackhawks’ COVID-19 outbreak over the last few weeks came about as close as possible to causing postponements without crossing that threshold.
With the Hawks’ protocol population now in decline, however, and the NHL signaling a major shift in its approach to the pandemic with new policy changes Tuesday, the team hopefully will be able to avoid any further issues during the second half of the season.
Seth Jones, head trainer Mike Gapski and equipment manager Troy Parchman were removed from COVID protocols Tuesday, reducing the Hawks’ list of unavailable personnel to three players — Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome and Brett Connolly — and zero staff members.
Dach and Strome will be eligible to test out of protocols starting Wednesday and Connolly will be eligible Friday, so it’s possible the Hawks could have no one left on the protocol list come puck drop Friday against the Wild, their next opponent.
That’s a drastic difference from the peak of their outbreak Jan. 11 against the Blue Jackets, when five players (plus Gapski and Parchman) were unavailable. If not for the taxi squad, which the NHL reinstituted as a safety net for those types of situations, the Hawks might not have had enough players that night to avoid a postponement.
Considering the NHL doesn’t test players for 90 days after they recover from the virus, the Hawks — having now seemingly survived the peak — don’t have that many at-risk players left at the moment.
Of their 36 players currently under contract who have made an NHL appearance this season, 21 have had publicly disclosed COVID cases within the last three months (and 15 of those cases occurred in the last month). Therefore, only 15 others are still being tested regularly.
Those numbers are similar leaguewide. The NHL told its teams Tuesday that 73% of players have had COVID this season, and 60% have had it in the last five weeks, Frank Seravalli of the Daily Faceoff reported — meaning only 27% to 40% are still subject to ongoing testing.
Even that will change after the All-Star break, however. The NHL will cease testing asymptomatic players following its return-from-break universal round of testing Feb. 7, after which point tests only will be conducted when a player develops symptoms or for U.S.-Canada border crossings.
The NHL, when enacting stricter protocols — including the taxi squads — in response to rising cases in mid-December, had identified the All-Star break as the point where a longer-term plan would be established.
This particular plan to stop asymptomatic testing, which had been supported and called for by many figures throughout the hockey world in recent weeks, follows similar changes enacted by the NFL on Dec. 18 and by the NBA last Thursday.
In essence, it’ll drastically reduce the number of players who have to miss time due to COVID — even though the number of players who contract it theoretically won’t change.
That’s considered safe and reasonable because of the risk factors of the omicron variant and because the entire NHL player population — except for Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi — is vaccinated. A sizable portion have received booster shots, too.
For example, five Hawks players who recently had COVID (Brandon Hagel, Sam Lafferty, Jake McCabe and Erik Gustafsson and Kevin Lankinen) said they never developed symptoms, whereas only one (Marc-Andre Fleury) said he did. Had this new policy already been in place, only Fleury’s case would’ve been identified, and thus only Fleury would’ve missed time.
Note: The NHL is expected to release its updated February schedule Wednesday, which should include new dates for the Hawks’ six postponed games (including four at the United Center).