*** UPDATE Dec. 18 — It became official just after 2 p.m. Eastern. The National Hockey League confirmed that the Maple Leafs road games tonight in Vancouver and tomorrow in Seattle have been postoned as a result of COVID–19.***
*** UPDATE Dec. 18 — COVID/OMICRON has infiltrated the Toronto Maple Leafs, with John Tavares, Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds on the protocol list as of this morning and needing to isolate for 10 days. The list could easily grow by game time, tonight, in Vancouver, threatening the match and tomorrow’s first meeting between the Leafs and Seattle Kraken.***
TORONTO (Dec. 16) — Despite an honest effort, the National Hockey League will not be able to outmaneuver the Omicron variant of COVID–19. It’s inevitable that the most–transmissible strain of the coronavirus will coerce the league into a indeterminate pause. As it will the National Basketball Association and, likely, the stretch–run and playoffs in the pompous National Football League, which truly believes it is superior to any act of God.
In the NHL, too many games will require postponement and too many teams will be at a competitive disadvantage. As of today, 140 NHL players have landed in COVID protocol — all but one being fully vaccinated: a frightening and ghastly statistic which proves that the prime deterrent to COVID is rather ineffective. Studies are showing that Omicron can spread at a large distance through the air and also has an incubation period, when incurrence of the disease is asymptomatic. In every hockey game, players are spraying one another with aerosol–type particles that could be highly contagious. As of now, there’s no way to comprehend that infections will decrease or even plateau. COVID protocol lists, league–wide, will continue to expand, with games falling by the wayside each night.
The NHL can therefore proceed in one of two directions: reactively, as it did when the NBA suspended activity in March 2020… or proactively, adopting a leadership role amid professional sport in North America by initiating a schedule pause in the coming days. By so doing, it will largely diminish, or halt, the inevitable conveyance of Omicron, thereby enabling the science community to better understand the variant and the potential methods for combat. With no guarantee, of course, that matches will resume after a specified interval. If the pause is somewhat brief, games can be made up during the Feb. 3–22 hiatus for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which will prove unnecessary once it becomes official that NHL players will not risk themselves and the health of their families. As of now, the deadline for that decision is Jan. 10. If the league suspends competition, the date becomes irrelevant.
It seems futile for the NHL to maintain status–quo. Omicron will not magically disappear or suddenly wane. The province of Ontario, in which the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators play home games, reported 2,421 new COVID cases today, with science tables projecting that number to rise between 10,000 and 12,000 by the end of the calendar year. The Doug Ford government has limited capacity to 50 percent amid venues larger than 1,000, which includes Scotiabank Arena and the Canadian Tire Centre. Don’t fool yourself into believing that further restrictions aren’t on the table, such as emulating the request from public health officials in Montreal that tonight’s match between the Canadiens and Philadelphia be conducted in a vacant Bell Centre. That’s for protection of the public, not the competitors. As we’ve seen in Calgary, where the Flames have been decimated by the coronavirus and Omicron variant, it’s unlikely that any market in the league will avoid skyrocketing infections.
There is also the Canada–USA dynamic to consider.
If cross–border travel is prohibited, games between Canadian and American–based teams will again be put on hold… even if the skies remain open, given lengthy isolation requirements. This will become mandatory and inevitable if the health system in either country spirals out of control, with intensive care units incapable of managing patient loads. It’s happened before… on several occasions in the past 22 months. It can easily happen again.
The longer the NHL procrastinates, the more havoc Omicron will enact on the schedule. The number of players in COVID protocol will become unmanageable. Nobody knows how that will impact the conformity of games played among the 32 teams… or if enough players will be sufficiently able–bodied to conduct a full and creditable Stanley Cup tournament. Again, when the league administered the 2020 playoffs and last year’s 56–game schedule amid empty arenas, the intention was to safeguard the public. Prior to Omicron (and the COVID vaccines), it was proven that players could remain healthy by submitting to the tightly restricted “bubble” environments. The new variant has thrown a ball of fire into that ingenious format, pulled off remarkably and infallibly by the Gary Bettman administration. It is entirely conceivable that players, today, can become infected within their own company.
Adding arena spectators to the mix will only complicate matters.
Understandably, “giving in” to COVID, yet again, is terribly unappealing to the NHL and the other professional leagues. Unfortunately, they are not in control. COVID–19 and its inherent strains is the most–contagious and complex pathogen in modern human history, crossing all continents and borders. Even the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918–19 somehow abated, after killing 50 million people across the globe. With no vaccine to protect against infection, or antibiotic to treat secondary bacterial outbreaks, control efforts worldwide were limited to isolation, quarantine and effective personal hygiene. All–such measures have been implemented since the advent of COVID–19, with eradication nowhere in sight. Professional sport is merely an adjunct to the misery sustained by hundreds of thousands the world over. It has no chance at all of separating from the pack.
The NHL should therefore protect its athletes by promptly surrendering to the COVID/Omicron behemoth.