After skating through another intense, physical and exciting scrimmage for the second straight day, the Boston Bruins came off the ice to the new that for the first, and what they know won’t be the last time, COVID had reared its ugly head into the 2021 NHL season.
The NHL announced that six Dallas Stars players and two staff members have recently confirmed positive tests for COVID and that the start of the Stars’ season and subsequently their first opponent, the Florida Panthers’ as well, would be postponed. The Stars and Panthers were set to open their respective seasons with a two-game set in Dallas on January 14 and 15.
The Stars and Panthers weren’t the only teams affected by COVID on Friday as the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that 16 players, including captain Nick Foligno and star defenseman Seth Jones were held out of practice due to COVID Precaution.
The Boston Bruins are well aware that they could and chances are, will be the Stars or Blue Jackets at some point during this abbreviated 56-game schedule and/or the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On Friday, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy addressed the elephant in the room of every NHL team and what happens if COVID busts through your dressing room or practice facility like the Bruins are hoping their newly constructed defense group can come out of their zone this season?
“I’m sure that it’s been discussed with the GM’s that if enough players or personnel were to test positive, what are the options to the team?” Cassidy said. “Do you have to play no matter what? I can’t see games being forfeited. I would assume you would look to reschedule down the road. And it’s a compressed schedule as is, so that is going to be a challenge.”
Of course, things were a lot easier when the 24 teams at the NHL Return to Play were trapped in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles but now there will be daily travel to and from the rink and time spent at home with family or significant others. As Cassidy pointed out, the risk of being exposed to COVID, especially when kids are factored in as well, is always there no matter how much prevention measures are taken.
“For us in the bubble, once you’re in there it was going to be difficult to test positive because everyone in there was negative,” Cassidy said. “So you basically have to bust out or someone would have to slip through the cracks getting in there. I think they did a real good job with that. This is different.
For example, I have young kids who do partial and remote school or they’re involved in some hockey while Massachusetts allows them to continue to play. They’re being very safe and wearing masks but who knows? Anything can happen. It’s going to be different. Then there’s players in that situation obviously. ‘Bergy’ [Patrice Bergeron] has kids; John Moore, etc. …’Krech’ [David Krejci], Tuukka [Rask]. So, You’ve just got to be extra careful for the next, I guess it could be just as much as six months unless there is a vaccine situation that allows you to open up a little bit.”
So with that in mind, the Boston Bruins are and will continue to stress to the players to do everything they can, short of being in a bubble again, to not be exposed.
“For us, that’s the message to the guys is a little bit of self-discipline to limit situations that would allow you to be in contact with people that, A, you don’t know, and B, in indoor spaces that are crowded,” Cassidy said. “But again, you can be as vigilant as you want, and sometimes your kids might bring it home and what are you going to tell a person that’s your family? So that’s the challenge in front of us; it was a challenge in front of baseball and football as well, and now basketball again when you’re not in a bubble.
So, that’s it. That’s all you can do, and let’s keep our fingers crossed that our players and our coaches, and anybody in hockey ops does the right thing. And then gets a little bit lucky because sometimes you do the right things, you can still contract the virus. So that’s the message to the players and then where it goes from there, if we do have a situation like Dallas, Donny [Sweeney] would be able to answer that better with what would transpire games or how you deal with that issue if you weren’t able to play.”
What about when the Boston Bruins hit the road which they will do right off the hop opening their 2021 season in Newark, New Jersey against the Devils for a two-game set and then hopping over to the Island to face the New York Islanders on Martin Luther King Day?
“That will be a conversation similar to what I said earlier, there’s going to have to be some self-discipline,” Cassidy said. “There are parameters in place in the National Hockey League about staying in the hotel. We are not allowed to be in restaurants on the road. That’s just part of the agreement that the protocols are put in place and the players need to adhere to that. It’s not an option. So we’ll have to remind them.”
One thing that Cassidy and his staff know though, is that they can’t be, and nor should they be, babysitters or security for the players. These are grown men and it’s up to them to act like it is the message that’s being sent. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with popping out for some fresh air but the restaurant and at times, probably not as much now, bar-hopping can’t happen.
“It’s difficult to follow a player around and make sure he doesn’t because clearly, you have your freedom to walk, get out on the road, whatever the case may be,” Cassidy acknowledged. “Just get out and walk around and getting some fresh air is fine but being indoors is a no-no and guys have to recognize that. They need to know that if they forgot something and they go ‘I gotta run around to go here and there to pick something up’, they’re gonna have to ask. There will be connoisseur services and different things that are available to them and we’re even limited with certain restaurants that do takeout food.”
The NHL has proven they can navigate through the COVID storm once but with the daunting task of travel and being outside the bubble, there could be some rough waters ahead. The only way to weather any potential storm will be to follow the COVID rules in place.
“So, there’s some strict protocols in place and for good reason,” Cassidy said. “That’s just the way it is right now and in order to be able to get through the season and stay healthy, you have to adhere to them. That will be the message to the guys and I hope our leadership group will make sure that they’re the ones that are being vocal with the guys about that because it always means more coming from your own players.
That’s a sacrifice you have to make to stay healthy so your team can compete at the highest level. So that’s the ask and let’s hope our players are up for it.”