Gone are the days of bubbles, regional divisions, CPRA lists, and taxi squads, but the NHL won’t be quite back to normal this season. The league will still have a COVID Protocol for the 2021-22 campaign and the details have been released this evening, courtesy of Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
The biggest piece of the new protocol, and one that is sure to cause at least some controversy among players, is a mechanism for suspending those who unvaccinated. With a COVID vaccine now readily available, as opposed to much of last season, those who choose not receive the vaccine will be held to a much higher standard of preventing the spread of the virus and its impact on teammates, personnel, and the NHL product altogether. If an unvaccinated player in unable to participate, they will surrender one day’s pay for each day they miss – essentially an indefinite unpaid suspension. This obviously pertains to a positive test, but more notably it also includes situations in which local, state/provincial, or federal regulations limit those who are unvaccinated. With the NHL split between the U.S. and Canada, who each treat COVID differently, this ensures that the policies and procedures in the locale of each home team are met without any exceptions or special considerations.
With that being said, there are also numerous exceptions to these “suspensions” for unvaccinated players, including those who tested positive in “the course of employment as a hockey player” (determined by a balance of probabilities test). Suspensions will also not arise out of close contact quarantines. Additionally, the league will consider medical and religious exceptions for not receiving the vaccination and those players will not be subject to suspension. This essentially leaves only those who are unvaccinated by choice who may be suspended, and in the event of positive test only if it determined to have occurred via outside contact.
Unvaccinated players must undergo COVID testing daily throughout the season or until they become fully vaccinated. While traveling, they may not enter any venue other than the arena, practice facility, and team hotel, the latter of which comes with other limitations. Unvaccinated players may not have anyone in their hotel room other than fully vaccinated family members and cannot enter any shared hotel spaces, such as pools, gyms, and saunas. They may not eat at restaurants that are open to the public other than those that offer drive-though and curbside pickup and once at the hotel may not leave to get food.
Fully vaccinated players must undergo COVID testing at least every 72 hours to begin the year. Fully vaccinated players who test positive are also not subject to suspension and their absence will be treated as if it is an injury.
Any player who wishes to opt out of the 2021-22 season due to personal health concerns (if unvaccinated) or the health concerns of a family member, must do so by October 1. Their team can then decide to roll over the contract to 2022-23 or instead to terminate. Those who opt out may not participate in any other league or at the Olympics.
As for staff, anyone with direct contact with players or other hockey operations officials must be fully vaccinated. The league is likely to make the same medical and religious exceptions, but otherwise the vaccine is a mandate for staff.
Although there are exceptions to many of these rules, it is clear that the NHL is incentivizing the COVID vaccine by placing heavy limitations on the unvaccinated. After two seasons that were critically impacted by the pandemic, the league wants some normalcy and to have uninterrupted hockey. Their best chances at that result is to have as many players and staff vaccinated as possible. If and when they feel comfortable with the vaccination status of the majority of players or with the spread of the virus, these rules can be subject to change to afford some more flexibility as the season progresses.