The NHL bubble: safe or sorry?

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CLAIRE HOGAN / THE FLAT HAT

There has been plenty of discourse in the sports media world about teams following proper COVID-19 restrictions before starting a season. Limiting fans, playing in a bubble and restricting interactions with other teams all seemed necessary for any sports to resume play back in early 2020.  

However, this January, the NHL suspended from play four Russian players from the Capitals as an example of what happens when you do not follow proper guidelines. After players were seen kibitzing in a hotel room without masks on, the NHL made them unavailable for play for a two-week quarantine period and fined the Capitals $100,000 for breaking COVID-19 restrictions. Three players returned to practice in early February and played in their first games this week, and questions about restrictions, risks and playing in the COVID-era resurfaced.   

The current safety regime of the NHL is riddled with holes, at best. At worst, it is a calculated, thinly-veiled appeasement to local government officials in order to keep game profits high. In the NHL COVID-19 protocol, there is an extensive list of reasons to quarantine, including trades to new teams and travel, but also an acknowledgement of the game’s reliance on close-contact play.  

On paper, the NHL seems to be taking every precaution: limiting mask-less interview segments, making quarantine part of the schedule and limiting contact between team bubbles. In practice, players sit practically on top of each other on the bench, practice as a team without masks and interact with other teams and referees also mask-less. Though the two are not mutually exclusive — teams can both quarantine and still play mask-less — the internal logic of the rules begins to show its faults. The NHL seems to be stringent about how players can stay healthy — even including policies for fining teams based on failure to comply — but actually promotes high-spreader events on almost a daily basis.  

That is not even to mention the bizarre insistence most coaches have on shouting instructions without a mask. So many times, I have watched a coach gesture at his players only to remove his mask a second later and repeat the same thing. Or, conversely, the mask slips below his nose and he fails to correct it. This is not a problem limited to the NHL (the Super Bowl immediately comes to mind), but the NHL, where coaches stand directly behind the mask-less players on the bench exhibits it particularly well. Most organizations have failed to rebuke coaches for improper mask wear, despite having lengthy COVID protocols about wearing masks outside of competition.  

The NHL on paper seeks to protect players’ health. In practice, it seeks to play as many games as possible before players and coaches get sick.  

That all being said, the best thing about the NHL COVID protocol in particular is certainly its “bubble” principle, which seeks to mitigate risk between the most at-risk groups and the least.  

As mentioned above, the NHL acknowledges the dangers that come with playing hockey, so it tries to limit mask-less time to only when players are on ice. The highest risk groups (such as athletes, coaches and refs) are also kept segregated from lower risk groups (like coordinators, maintenance personnel, etc). In the locker room, everyone is expected to be properly masked and distanced. I really like the idea of protecting the essential staff from players who are constantly interacting with other teams and each other, mask-less.  

However, the “bubble” principle is why I found the recent restrictions of Alex Ovechkin, Dmitri Orlov, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov problematic. Their ban further exemplifies the hypocrisy of the NHL’s rules. I have shown why the internal logic of the rules prioritizes gameplay over players’ health. I have also shown how the NHL assumes a team “bubble” of its mask-less players and coaches, segregating them from the other personnel to protect those personnel.  

But these four players are all part of the same group — they’re all players, and players on the same team, nonetheless. They practice together, mask-less. They sit on the bench together, mask-less. But when they leave the ice and eat dinner together, they are suddenly in violation of COVID-19 protocols. By the NHL’s own logic to the COVID protocol, (that because they are all a part of “Group 1” and on the same team, they are safe to play), they should be able to associate outside of hockey-related activities as well.  

I understand the NHL making an example out of them. They were technically in violation of the rules. The NHL wants to make sure its protocols are being followed — or demonstrating that it is willing to follow through when they are not — but this ban calls the very basis of the rule into question. It makes no sense. These players are just as much at risk when they sit and play together — indoors — for three, 20-minute periods as they are hanging out outside of the rink. Though I do not personally believe they should have been mask-less, I do believe the logic of NHL rules should have allowed them to behave in this manner.   

What I am trying to say is, if the priority is to keep the players safe, these rules are not doing enough. Players’ exposure to other teams and members of their own team — indoors, mask-less, and breathing heavily — is well outside Center for Disease Control guidelines. But, if the priority is to have all professional sports leagues play games as if everything is normal (sans fans), the rules only stunt normality. The NHL’s COVID protocol does not fulfill either goal: health or gameplay. It is fundamentally flawed. 

So why does the NHL have these protocols in the first place? I argue that, similarly to other major leagues, the protocol was necessary for the league to return to gameplay. Without intent to quarantine, or intent to wear masks, or intent to segregate affiliated groups based on risk, government officials would not allow games (especially in the NHL where coordination between Canada and the U.S. is required).  

Maybe it’s cynical to believe the rules are in place only for the organization to make money, but with all the risks to players, it seems logical. After all, the Caps played two games in two days against two different teams just this week. The NHL punished four players for associating outside of the rink but expected the entire Caps roster to associate inside the rink with the entire Rangers’ and Devils’ rosters.  

The NHL is not the MLB. Players board their opponents, screen the net in a scrum and sit in tight quarters on the bench. There is so much close contact that, even with the rules in place, health gets cast to the wayside. To operate with 100% safety in COVID, the NHL would have to fundamentally change the rules of the game.   

Of course, I want my favorite players safe and healthy. I love watching the games, but if health is on the line, I would prefer no gameplay to dangerous. However, because the NHL has deemed it safe enough to return to the ice (for whatever reason, profit-based or not), it must be consistent with its rules and punishments. If it is safe enough for the players to compete together mask-less and un-distanced, it must also be safe enough for them to take public transportation together and spend time together outside of the rink as well.