TORONTO (Dec. 14) — It is alarming and confounding to witness the effect that COVID–19 is having on the apparently vaccinated National Hockey League. The virus protocol lists are expanding by the day… as are games requiring postponement. On Monday, it was the Toronto at Calgary match scheduled for Thursday night — an outbreak in the Flames dressing room the cause. And, the NHL was forced to postpone tonight’s Carolina at Minnesota encounter with COVID racing through the Hurricanes. Neither will this be the end of such disappointing interruptions. Boston and Vancouver are in danger of losing games as 15 players, league wide, were added to the COVID protocol list today alone. The bigger question surrounds the possibility, though remote right now, that COVID and/or the frightening Omicron variant could shut down the league for a period of time. What I believe next to certain is that players in the NHL will opt out of the Beijing Winter Olympics for fear of contracting the virus.
The timing is bad; the venue even worse.
There was a warning, earlier, from the NHL that a spate of COVID–related postponements would create an untenable circumstance for the Olympics, though the league insisted, earlier this week, the decision belongs to the players. That could change, very quickly, if more teams are effected by the pathogen and more games fall by the wayside. Here in Toronto, Maple Leaf stars John Tavares and Auston Matthews — each previously enthusiastic about representing their country in Beijing — offered reservations on Monday. Other big–name players are sure to follow. Anyone suggesting the pandemic is over and done with had best reconsider. COVID and its various strains is proving to be the most–contagious infection in modern human history. The vaccines, quickly manufactured by such companies as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, have stymied the uncontrollable spread of the disease, but are hardly infallible. Still of profound concern is that the Omicron variant, originating in South Africa, could be marginally resistant to immunization. Most assuredly, politicians at all levels in Canada and the United States are anxious over the specter of having to put movement restrictions back into place that impede the economy. At this point, I do not discount the repeat of any confining measure from the first two years of COVID–19, which still predominantly rules our lives. In the big picture, of course, professional sport is of minuscule concern.
IT’S ALMOST CERTAIN THAT HOCKEY FANS WILL HAVE TO WAIT FOUR MORE YEARS TO SHARE A MOMENT SUCH AS THE “GOLDEN GOAL” BY SIDNEY CROSBY IN THE 2010 VACOUVER OLYMPICS.
Are athletes in competitive games at higher risk than the general population of contracting COVID? Does physical exertion and the inherent dispersal of nasal droplets ensure that even fully vaccinated players will be infected? Will third (or booster) shots enact more of a barrier to the disease? Most importantly, is the vaccination rate in the NHL as comprehensive as we’re led to believe? These are questions of abject importance… and largely unanswerable at this point. What we can tell you for certain is that NHL players will put themselves at far–greater risk of becoming sick if they travel halfway across the globe to the region where COVID–19 originated. Common sense, above all else, will ultimately prevail and keep our hockey heroes at home during the Winter Games.
We were told, last summer, that the NHL had drawn up a schedule that precluded the Feb. 3–22 break for the Olympics. That ledger has not been made public, but surely is on the table. It will need to be implemented no later than Jan. 10 so that teams cam make, confirm or cancel alternate travel plans for that 2½–week period. It would also be helpful to the league in rescheduling games that are lost to COVID–19 protocol. As such, I suspect there will be limited disenchantment within the NHL when the decision is made to forego the Winter Olympics.
And, enormous relief amid families of the players.
THE START OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION
Looking through my collection of The Hockey News, I realized I had the Oct. 27, 1972 issue with the first games and summaries from the World Hockey Association, which rivaled the National Hockey League from 1972–73 to 1978–79 and led to the end of the controversial reserve clause, in which players were tied to their original teams in perpetuity unless released or traded. The decision (Nov. 8, 1972) in Philadelphia by Judge A. Leon Higginbotham precluded the NHL of enforcing the reserve clause; allowed for Bobby Hull to finally suit up for the Winnipeg Jets, and paved the way for unrestricted free agency in professional sport. Hull startled the hockey world by defecting to the Jets (in June 1972) from the Chicago Black Hawks, thereby assuring the new league had a marquee name. Such other NHL stars as Bernie Parent, Gerry Cheevers, J.C. Tremblay, Ted Green, John McKenzie and Derek Sanderson joined Hull in the first year of the WHA. In the following season (1973–74), Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play alongside his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Houston Aeros.
This issue of The Hockey News listed the original starting line–ups for all 12 teams: Alberta Oilers, Chicago Cougars, Cleveland Crusaders, Houston Aeros, Los Angeles Sharks, Minnesota Fighting Saints, New England Whalers, New York Raiders, Ottawa Nationals, Philadelphia Blazers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets.
STARTING ROSTERS (ABOVE AND BELOW) IN THE INAUGURAL SEASON OF THE WHA.
BOBBY HULL HAD BEEN SIGNED AS PLAYING–COACH OF WINNIPEG. THOUGH HE COULDN’T DRESS FOR THE FIRST MONTH OF THE 1972–73 SCHEDULE (UNTIL HIGGINBOTHAM’S RULING), HE WAS ABLE TO GUIDE THE JETS FROM BEHIND THE BENCH, BEGINNING WITH THEIR FIRST GAME (OCT. 14), AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, AGAINST THE NEW YORK RAIDERS.
THE STANDINGS AND FIRST WEEK OF SCORES IN THE WHA.
THE FIRST WHA GAME WAS PLAYED ON OCT. 11, 1972 AT THE OTTAWA CIVIC CENTRE (SUMMARY, TOP–LEFT). THE ALBERTA OILERS DEFEATED THE OTTAWA NATIONALS, 7–4. ALBERTA WOULD ULTIMATELY BECOME THE EDMONTON OILERS AND SURVIVE AS ONE OF FOUR WHA TEAMS ABSORBED BY THE NHL FOR THE 1979–80 SEASON. RIGHT–WINGER RON ANDERSON (b. Jan. 21, 1950) OF ALBERTA SCORED THE FIRST WHA GOAL. DEFENSEMAN BOB FALKENBERG (b. Jan. 1, 1946) OF THE OILERS TOOK THE FIRST PENALTY. AND, OTTAWA GOALIE LES BINKLEY (b. June 6, 1934) ALLOWED THE FIRST TALLY. ALL THREE ARE PICTURED, BELOW, IN THEIR 1972–73 HOCKEY CARDS.
ALSO ON OPENING NIGHT (TOP–LEFT), GERRY CHEEVERS OF THE CRUSADERS BLANKED THE QUEBEC NORDIQUES AT THE OLD CLEVELAND ARENA (1937–74). THE JETS BEAT THE RAIDERS, 6–4, IN THEIR DEBUT (TOP–RIGHT). NHL VETERAN AB McDONALD SCORED WINNIPEG’S FIRST WHA GOAL; EX–LEAFS FARMHAND RON WARD NOTCHED THE FIRST FOR NEW YORK.
MORE SUMMARIES (ABOVE AND BELOW) FROM THE FIRST TWO WEEKS OF THE WHA.